When it comes to hockey movies, Miracle is as big a winner as its heroes

Feb 4, 2004 at 4:00 am
When the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, consisting of twenty raw college boys, beat the seemingly invincible, state-hardened Soviets and went on to win the gold medal at Lake Placid, the event was regarded, even in palm-lined Miami and iceless Honolulu, as the most amazing feat in U.S. Olympic history. This was not David knocking off Goliath, but David blowing the entire Kremlin away. Certainly, the infectious emotion of the thing was heightened by the sorry state of the union. Elvis was dead. We were still reeling from the scandal of Watergate. The Cold War continued apace, and President Jimmy Carter, tangled in the bewilderments of recession and the Iranian hostage mess, talked openly about a national "crisis of confidence." So when an astonished Mike Eruzione slammed the winning U.S. shot into the back of the Russian net, a kind of redemption rained down from sea to shining sea.

Twenty-four years later, we find ourselves asking new, even more troubling questions about national purpose and the condition of our collective psyche. So it can't hurt, amid the current traumas, to revisit the '80 Winter Olympics for a couple of hours and bask again in a moment of unqualified glory. That's the real agenda, it seems clear, underlying Gavin O'Connor's deft, exciting Miracle, an unabashed flag-waver that does for its young hockey players what John Wayne used to do for the Marines and lifts all of us, too, onto the boys' cloud of belief.

In the hockey team's case, the company commander was a flinty, no-nonsense coach from Minnesota named Herb Brooks, who is portrayed here with such uncanny accuracy by Kurt Russell that actual members of the 1980 team will likely cringe in pain all over again as Russell re-enacts Brooks' ruthless drills and merciless scrimmages. For the square-jawed actor, a former minor-league baseball player who's gone oh-for-three lately with Dark Blue, Vanilla Sky and 3000 Miles to Graceland, this has got to be a redemptive shot in its own right. For my money, it's the role Russell's long been waiting for, and it's yielded the performance of his career.

What Brooks faced back in 1979 was Mission: Impossible. He had just seven months to build a team of amateurs capable of mixing it up with the world's best. Immature and seething with old college rivalries, his kids were a fractious bunch, and the striking cast of unknowns assembled by director O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) perfectly captures their unruliness and youthful daring. Not only that, most of these actors can actually chase down a puck and deliver a forecheck. Patrick O'Brien Demsey, a former ad agency intern who's terrific as Eruzione, played college hockey at Fitchburg State. Nathan West (Bring It On), who portrays Robbie McClanahan, got to the minor leagues. Michael Mantenuto was both a theater major and a hockey star at the University of Maine. Among the young principals, only Eddie Cahill (who plays Tag on Friends) has no hockey props, but he's just right as the team's famously dogged goalie, Jim Craig.

Even more important, Russell absolutely embodies Brooks' relentless will and the disturbing force of his regrets. As a player, Brooks had been cut from the 1960 U.S. team that went on to win the Olympic gold medal. Since then, the USSR squad, a brutally efficient veteran juggernaut capable of annihilating NHL all-star teams, had taken the gold in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976, and Brooks was fiercely, almost unnaturally, driven to beat the Russkies at their own game.

Like The Bad News Bears or Seabiscuit, his young Americans are hopeless longshots, but the tough, instinctual coach picks his players in just one day of tryouts, then brutally whips them into shape. "Not the best players," Brooks barks to his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich). "The right players." By the time we reach the climactic Big Game, we understand that he found them.

For his part, Russell infuses all the old sports-movie verities -- hard work, teamwork, courage -- with new life. Even if most feel-good sports movies make you gag, this one will likely raise a lump in your throat even as director of photography Daniel Stoloff and his nimble team of camera operators reproduce the thrilling rough-and-tumble of the game.

Apparently, things weren't always so inspirational for Brooks' wife, Patty (Patricia Clarkson). Here, he so neglects her that the marriage is threatened.

On Hollywood's surprisingly short list of hockey movies, the raunchy comedy of Slap Shot always puts it to the squeaky-clean uplift of The Mighty Ducks, while the pond-hockey fantasy Mystery, Alaska finishes a distant third. No more. Whether you're a hardcore puckhead or a moviegoer who's never picked up a stick, Miracle is the new champion of the rink -- a rousing, authentic charmer that goes easy on the schmaltz but never hesitates to stir up real emotion. It didn't even require the real-life postscript that adds such bittersweetness to the story, but here you go anyway: Before the real Herb Brooks could see the movie, he was killed in an automobile accident. In times of trouble, maybe we get only one happy ending.