Rocky hits the ice in “Miracle,” one of those movies about unlikely victory against an apparently invincible opponent that have been the staple of sports cinema since time immemorial. But the retelling of the unexpected Olympic victory of the U.S. hockey team in 1980 adds to the usual come-from-behind plotting by striking a nationalistic chord that should be irresistible to audiences in this era of rampant armchair patriotism. The result is a flag-waving, underdog-rooting formula flick that’s superior to the usual run of like-minded telefilms only by reason of its slickness and professional savvy. For while “Miracle” is quite successful in conveying the excitement of the victory in national terms–coming as a welcome change at a time when the country was in the doldrums as a result of Watergate, Vietnam, long gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis–it doesn’t generate equivalent emotional power on the more personal level.
That’s partially the result of its lead performances. To be sure, Kurt Russell gives a cannily underplayed turn as Herb Brooks, the University of Minnesota coach who took a bunch of individualistic players from all sections of the country–some with long-standing grudges against each other–and, through a mixture of gruffness and understanding (mostly the former), molded them into a team not only united in a common purpose but also adept in a new style of play calculated to challenge the supposedly invulnerable Russian squad on its own terms. Russell offers a more subdued version of the shtick familiar from “Fargo,” playing the coach as a reserved but driven guy with a natural integrity and a tendency to remain calm and speak in a flat monotone, even at the most nerve-wracking moments. You have to admire him for the skill he brings to the part–as well as for his courage appearing with an awful ’70s hairdo and incredibly ugly plaid trousers and sportscoats. But his very success in capturing the character’s reticence and lack of flamboyance makes for a rather pallid centerpiece for the story–especially since scripter Eric Guggenheim doesn’t find a way to do much with either his family life or his professional relationships. Patricia Clarkson, whose recent work in independent films has been so impressive, can’t do much with the part of the Brooks’s long-suffering but supportive wife except look alternately joyous and stricken, and their two children make only fleeting appearances. Moreover neither Craig Patrick, as his assistant, nor Kenneth Welsh, as the team doctor who idolizes the coach, goes significantly beyond a generalized likableness, and the U.S. Olympic officials are even more innocuous. On the other hand, the Russian coach is portrayed as a snarling Cold War caricature, whose grudging recognition of Brooks is portrayed as a major international thaw.
Still, all that would mean less if the members of Team USA had been made more distinctive. Except for one mustachioed fellow whose vaguely hillbilly air sets him apart, the other players seem fairly cookie-cutter types–smilingly good-looking (even after crashing into walls or beating each other up, they appear in the next scene without blemish, pure matinee-idol types) and rather blandly energetic in the pursuit of the coach’s approval and gold medals. Even when obstacles like an injured knee pop up, they don’t carry the dramatic resonance they should. The failure to differentiate the players adequately isn’t the fault of the young actor/skaters–Eddie Cahill, Patrick O’Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto, Billy Schneider, Nathan West, Eric Peter-Kaiser, Kenneth Mitchell–who are all personable types. It results from deficiencies in the screenplay and direction.
On the other hand, though he doesn’t handle the interpersonal material terribly well, helmer Gavin O’Connor crafts the action on the ice with considerable aplomb. The training sessions come across as genuinely rigorous, and the recreation of the games seems well-done to an observer not terribly well versed in the sport. Technically the picture is a very professional job, with spiffy cinematography by Daniel Stoloff and a predictably rousing score from Mark Isham. Costumer Tom Bronson deserves mention for Russell’s authentically hideous outfits; as to that plastered-down hair, it’s unclear where the credit (or blame) belongs: was it hairstylist Sherry Gygli (note that the spelling differs from last year’s Affleck-Lopez catastrophe), Russell’s make-up artist Dennis Liddiard, or perhaps special effects coordinator Alex Burdett?
In the final analysis, O’Connor and Russell don’t achieve the remarkable result of transforming a cliched sports story into a transcendent movie experience. Their picture is a workmanlike job; what it aims to do, it accomplishes pretty well. But it doesn’t try to go much beyond the normal trajectory for a picture like this. Its most memorable feature, in fact, comes in connection with the director’s stated desire to present the narrative in its political and social context, but it’s something for which he’s not immediately responsible. That’s the superb opening credit sequence–a marvelous montage of newsreel footage from the 1970s beautifully encapsulating the atmosphere of the time. It’s the work of Deborah Ross Film Design, and though it might not efface memories of the Saul Bass creations of the fifties and sixties, the fact that it can be mentioned in the same breath is high praise indeed.
Of course, the fact that the most noteworthy thing about a movie is its opening credits is a rather sad commentary on what follows them. This picture will undoubtedly be a major spring crowd-pleaser–a sort of “Seabiscuit” with pucks–but while the victory of Team USA in 1980 might have been miraculous, the movie reduces it to something pretty ordinary.