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MIRACLE , USA , 2004 , MPAA Rating : PG for language and some rough sports action

The makers of MIRACLE certainly had their work cut out for them. How to maintain a sense of suspense when the whole reason for making the film was to celebrate how the US Olympic hockey team trounced the unbeatable Soviets at the 1980 Winter Games? With the outcome a foregone conclusion, they decided to drive home for the first hour and a half of this 2 1/2 hour movie just how impossible it was. From practically the first frame of film until the final credits, all we in the audience hear is how impossible the odds are. Overkill? You betcha. Especially when that aspect of the tale is summed up better during the two teams first face-off, when the intrepid but young USA forward skates out to the center of the rink only to see a man-mountain in a red uniform bearing down on him. Seriously, that tells the whole story right there.

Sure, it helps to know that the Soviet team has been together for 15 years and that our guys are still kids and a team for only nine months. Instead, perhaps a bit about the people who made up the miracle team, what drives them, what got them where they are today. But this is a film aimed at a cinema audience that prefers its sports films as hagiographies with the good guys and the bad buys clearly drawn without a hint of subtlety or complexity. Hence they are the requisite two-dimensional cartoon-like characters that not only spout clichés but also evince the usual roster of cliche problems. There's the intra-team rivalry, the kid with the problems at home, the assistant coach who thinks that his boss is driving the team too hard, and, of course, the coach's struggles to have it all. You know, be a father to the guys on the team and not neglect his family at home. He fails at that, of course, but has the support of the even more requisite chipper and understanding wife (Patricia Clarkson taking what I hope is a lucrative break from
Indies), who only nags him because she cares and only to make him realize that she knows how fabulous he is. He's Herb Brooks, who never quite got over being cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team a week before they struck gold. He's also a man with a radical plan to blend Soviet- and Canadian-style hockey and beat the Soviets at their own game. A plan that, as it turns out, was fabulous. Kurt Russell plays with a wooden performance featuring squinty eyes, the tightest lips on cinema screens this year, and a wardrobe consisting almost exclusively of the sort of big plaids that make us all look back on 70s fashion with a frisson of horror. As for the bad guys, that would be the Soviets, their coach is depicted as an automaton with such a glowering beetle brow that it's amazing he can see anything through the forest of his eyebrows.

So much for set-up and backstory. Coach Brooks pushes the team to its collective limit physically and mentally in ways that bring to mind the finer points of psychological warfare. The guys posture, tussle, and eventually go through an elaborate set of male-bonding rituals in order to become the team that can't lose even if it does.  

We've seen it all a gazillion times. So, you can safely miss that part of the film and then come in for the last act, where the team gets to the Olympics and things get interesting. Yes, we know what's going to happen, but something kicks in when the guys hit the ice. The direction by Gavin O’Connor, that until then has been slightly less interesting than what you'd find on the sports segment of your local news, goes into high gear. It becomes kinetic as it follows the re-creations of some of the most exciting hockey ever played. The coaches go into believably intense emotional overdrive while on the ice, bodies slam against each other, ice sprays from skates, and players follow the puck with speeds that are almost a blur to the eye. The actors suddenly spring to life, too, mixing earnest grit and elated disbelief as they score goal after goal as the crowd roars. Even the goalie, buried beneath the mask and padding finally takes on a recognizable personality.

A film about underdogs so far down the hockey food chain winning it all is a great story. It's good to be reminded, as we are in the film, why this team and this win was so important even to people that didn't care about sports, what with the previous decade having seen Watergate, the fall of Saigon, inflation, a gas shortage, and the Iranian hostage crises. Fumbling the backstory and unnecessarily overplaying the underdog status seriously undercuts what could have been a genuine feel-good flick. Instead, it has, until that rousing last act, been reduced to a genre flick, the type usually found in a shorter format during a half-time show where swelling music and slo-mo substitute for genuine feeling. Darn.

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