Souls on ice
Great sports movies (The Rookie, Raging Bull) are superb on and off the field. Marginally good sports movies (Rudy, He Got Game) manage to capture some of the spirit of the sport they’re covering while perhaps fumbling the ball a bit on subtext and drama. Miracle, the first theatrical movie attempt at capturing the amazing achievements of the 1980 Olympic hockey team (there was a hastily produced 1981 TV movie, Miracle on Ice, that starred Karl Malden and Steve Guttenberg), falls short of being even a good sports movie. It makes a few too many errors on and off the ice, failing to capture the essence of the sport it’s studying and reducing most of the men and women involved in the historical drama to caricature.
Early on, director Gavin O’Connor’s film manages to capture some of the malaise that slowed America during that terrible beginning of the ‘80s. Post Vietnam stress, the gas shortage, hostages in Iran, Russians invading Afghanistan, and people’s insistence on wearing far too much plaid are all given proper attention. Miracle does a decent job of conveying the overall American state of mind (defeat and despair) at the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where the American hockey team would have a highly improbable showdown with the Russians.
In the central role of head coach Herb Brooks, the nice-enough-looking fellow who apparently scared the hell out of everybody on his team, Kurt Russell does some of the most mannered, mature acting work of his long career. Saddled with a frightening ‘80s hairdo and mastering a Minnesotan accent, Russell becomes the late sports icon who died shortly after the completion of the movie’s principal photography.
When Miracle takes to the ice, it has its moments. Brooks torturing his skaters after some bad play, making them skate back and forth repeatedly until they vomit, is a grueling example of the insane commitment required to be the best at a sport. There are moments where O’Connor does manage to capture the skull-thumping violence of hockey quite honestly, with actors slamming into walls and each other with much ferocity.
As for the big game itself, the results are somewhat frustrating. Shaky cameras and swift editing are meant to recreate the intensity of the game, but it reduces much of the action to a blur. We catch the occasional glimpse of a puck and hear the original Al Michaels voiceover scream “Score!” It’s all very flashy, but often very hard to follow the action taking place.
As Jim Craig, the victorious goalie that many might remember draped with an American flag looking for his father in the stands, Eddie Cahill offers the film’s second best performance. His is the only character on the team given substantial screen time, and Cahill overcomes some of the script hokum to embody the boy from Boston University who would be king of the goal. Patricia Clarkson, goddess of independent cinema, gets a big-studio role, and it’s painful to behold. As Mrs. Brooks, she’s asked to deliver what will hopefully be the most inane lines of her career. This is the sort of mainstream, by-the-numbers movie role she’s known for not playing.
When the real "miracle on ice" occurred, I was 11 years old and lacked any major interest in hockey (baseball ruled my life). The Russians made me very uncomfortable, and the notion of beating them in a sport failed to make me feel protected from their many nuclear warheads aimed at my pre-teen ass. In short, I could care less about the big event, and that’s pretty much how I feel about this film. I labored to like it, and working to like a film usually isn’t a good sign. While the Russell performance is substantial, and the movie’s spirit well-meaning, in the end, it failed to move me.