- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Often superficial but irresistibly stirring during its crunch-time hockey action, “Miracle” is a better-than-cornball rabble-rouser celebrating the Mission Impossible of the late Herb Brooks. Impersonated with a funny hairpiece but a persuasive Minnesota accent and hard-nosed sense of dedication by Kurt Russell, Mr. Brooks engineers the remarkable “miracle on ice,” coaching the U.S. Olympic hockey team to an upset of the heavily favored Soviet team in the semifinal of the 1980 Winter Games, not to mention the anti-climactic gold-medal victory over Finland in the final.

The movie is so drained by the tension and exaltation of the semifinal that it treats the gold-medal game as a footnote, slipping in glimpses of the medal presentations as a finale. It’s too bad; it might have been fun to witness Mr. Russell rise to the peculiar follow-up challenge of yet another big game and psych his team toward that victory as well.

Nevertheless, director Gavin O’Connor and his associates seem to cover the bets they need to. For starters, they thrive on Mr. Russell’s embodiment of a simultaneously driven and far-sighted coach. On the ice, they finesse key moments from a handful of games. It’s impossible to duplicate the experience of watching any memorable game as it unfolds either in the arena or on television, but the “Miracle” apparatus performs very well while declining to fall back on documentary footage.

It’s a little surprising that Mr. O’Connor fails to magnify the rinkside perspective at Lake Placid, N.Y., by reminding us of how many people were following the game on TV around the country and around the world. Fortunately, the depiction is sufficiently fast and incisive to suggest the players’ perspective vividly. What the approach lacks in social breadth it compensates for in immediacy. So much kinetic excitement is sustained during the Soviet game that one’s reservations are swept off the ice and out of mind.

They may return in retrospect, of course. I don’t think any of the team members are characterized in sufficient detail. It’s difficult to differentiate beyond three figures: Eddie Cahill as goalie Jim Craig, whose family is going through a rough time; Patrick O’Brien Demsey as captain Mike Eruzione, destined to score the winning goal in the semifinal; and Kenneth Mitchell as Ralph Cox, the last player cut, a primal sports scene that is admirably written and realized in “Miracle.”

Evidently, the casting priority was young men with hockey experience rather than aspiring actors, but you have to wonder if some artful doubling might have maximized the potential in both types. At any rate, one tends to prop up the movie’s failures at vignette characterization among two dozen supporting players by relying on athletic history to explain the fact that the 1980 contingent became a close-knit team. The script’s demonstrations of this bonding tend to be skimpy at best.

Documentary footage is deftly used during the opening credits to recall the political climate that anticipated the 1980 Winter Games. This athletic spectacle was destined to be clouded by the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and threats of the boycotts that did affect the Summer Games of both 1980 and 1984. Mr. Brooks’ team became something of a real-life Rocky Balboa for Americans inclined to feel beleaguered and defeatist.

Patricia Clarkson gets a handful of scenes as the coach’s wife and proves an amusing, self-assertive foil to Mr. Russell when given half a chance. Neither actor gets much chance to confirm a parental identity, and both seem a little old for the children ascribed to their characters. The real people were probably a decade younger in 1980 than the actors who impersonate them in 2004.

Mr. Russell does get a better explanation for sacrificing family to profession than movie coaches usually articulate. He reflects that he knows only one way to coach the team effectively, and this imaginative limitation demands a six-month withdrawal from normal obligations.

Judging from his stolen moments of jubilation after the Soviet game, another good opportunity for Mr. Russell, the mission precluded public displays of satisfaction. But then the coach did have another game to worry about.

***

TITLE: “Miracle”

RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity, vulgarity and violence, in the context of hockey workouts and games)

CREDITS: Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Eric Guggenheim. Cinematography by Daniel Stoloff. Editing by John Gilroy. Music by Mark Isham.

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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