Miracle
Grade: A-
Year: 2004
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Eric Guggenheim
Genre: Drama
Rated: PG
By Scott Spicciati

At a time when movies now exploit the September 11th tragedy, it is truly uplifting when a film properly pays tribute to that defining moment in history. In "Miracle," a film based on the true story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, there's a shot of the World Trade Center standing proud and tall as the country endures the hardships of the early 80s; the Iran hostage crisis, gas lines at empty pumps, and the possibility of a nuclear fallout with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As you will see in the film, "Miracle" is a sports movie that isn't about sports. It isn't even about hockey. It's about America and the state of her spirit. What better way to lift it than by beating the best hockey team in the world under a global microscope at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York?

Kurt Russell plays Herb Brooks, the head coach of the hockey team that will eventually advance to face the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. Because it's based on a true story, much of plot is concrete and can't be manipulated the way you would a completely fictitious tale. First of all, the game between the U.S. and Soviet Union isn't the title match that will determine who gets the gold medal, whereas a movie based on fiction would make its climax take place during the big game. And secondly, the game isn't decided by the final shot or closing seconds, but a few minutes prior. And third, we already know who's going to win. But in case your head has been in the clouds for however long you've been alive, I'll spare you the obvious.

As usual, the team we're focused on is the underdog, otherwise there wouldn't be a need for this movie. Everyone is expecting the Soviets to win, so it's up to Brooks to sculpt the perfect team; the only team that could possibly stand a chance against the opponent who would eventually obliterate them with 10 goals just a week prior to their final showdown.

But before the team reaches the Olympics, we observe the usual routine we expect from this genre. First the roster must be finalized after the completion of a grueling tryout session. It begins with dozens of athletes, and after more than half are cut on the first day, we are left with 26 that will soon become the final 20. The practices are intense and test the players' endurance to the point of collapse. As we see in one of my favorite scenes of the film, the team takes part in endless drills and sprints that extend into the late hours. Only after the team physician walks out in disgust and the closing staff cut the power at the ice rink does Coach Brooks call it a night. And if the next day the team isn't performing up to Coach's standards, he’ll make them do it all over again.

The pace of the film moves seemingly quick, and that's a good thing. The Olympic games are called by Al Michaels, and I suspect he provided a new commentary track for the movie, although there is a part where we see him doing a television broadcast as he looked and sounded more than 20 years ago. It could very well be true that we're hearing the 1980 commentary from Al Michaels more than two decades ago.

My only real complaint is that I felt like the final game could have been a little more intense. I feel as though we could have been brought a little closer to the action, something maybe only Gary Ross could accomplish -- the director of "Seabiscuit." But here the director is the relatively unknown Gavin O'Connor and his equally popular cinematographer, Dan Stoloff, can only keep the camera directly on the ice for so long. Then again, no one ever said hockey was an easy sport to follow. But too many times we are either looking at the crowd, scoreboard or coach when we should be watching the players.

O'Connor gets creative a certain moments, such as the way he has the puck dropped in total silence in the face-off at the beginning of the third period. In slow motion, two opposing players dance with their sticks before the Soviets steal possession. But besides that and a few other instances, O'Connor relies on his actors to carry the film and the emotion it's supposed to bring.

And I'm happy to say Kurt Russell wears his hairpiece with confidence and hits just the right notes during the obligatory pep speeches to his ailing young team. Out of the 20 players on the roster, no one individual gets the most camera time. Almost all of the actors are first-time performers, with the exception of a few faces I'm sure I've seen before. And that's the way it should have been done. Hockey is a team sport, and the movie wisely follows the philosophy of Coach Brooks, that no one player is more important than any other.

"Miracle" is a great film and it will surely be accepted by moviegoers of all ages. It's similar to the usual sports genre flick, but not only does it manage to succeed in the feel-good department, it uniquely stresses a pro-American sentiment we haven't seen in some time at the movies. And it does so with the conviction of a first-rate drama, but without the sappiness of films like "The Patriot."

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