Miracle (10/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

About halfway through this movie about the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal-winning hockey team, Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) looks at a picture of the 1960 USA Olympic Gold Medalists, the last USA team to beat the Soviets. Although the picture is only on the screen for a second, part of the caption identifying the players is visible and the first name I saw was Harry C. Batcheldor. Then it flashed off the screen, never to be seen again.

I had been thinking of Harry moments before his name appeared on the screen. He was the first person I met on my first day at the University of Virginia School of Law in the ‘60s. He was a third year law student, the chief of my dorm, and was my suitemate. We all lived in two bedroom suites joined by a common bathroom, four to a suite. In addition to the hockey, and the ability to get in one of the nation’s top law schools, Harry had also been Special Forces in the service, so he was tough. Always wearing a shark’s tooth given to him by the Soviet Ice Hockey team captain around his neck, Harry was an original. One day he was riding a guy about something. When the guy left I said, “Harry, don’t you think you were a little hard on him?” He was shaving at the time and walked into my room with shaving cream on his face, a towel around his midriff, looked at me and said, “Muds, people die,” and walked back into the bathroom. Beneath his gruff exterior, however, was a nice guy, although you wouldn’t know it superficially, to look at him or listen to him. He told me he had been the #1 goalie on the 1960 Olympic Hockey team until two weeks before the Olympics, when he was dumped in favor of Jack McCartan who spearheaded the victory. I mention this because Harry was the roughest, toughest person I’ve ever known. And he was a goalie! Goalies don’t hit or get hit. The guys who get hit and do the hitting have to be much rougher and tougher than a goalie! Despite this, Harry personified for me the mystique of these people who play this violent sport.

In Miracle, Brooks is displayed as a strong-thinking, single-minded coach whose idea was that it wasn’t just talent that would enable the US to beat the Soviets, it was teamwork. Brooks didn’t want the best players; he wanted players who could play together as a team. He wanted to ape the Soviets’ style. Not only had the US not beaten the Soviets since 1960, the Soviets (actually the Russian Red Army team) had only recently demolished a team of National Hockey League All Stars. Clearly, they were the best hockey team in the world.

Brooks picks his team on the first day of tryouts, angering the committee that chose him because they wanted to participate in the selections. He drives his players relentlessly. His dedication to his job causes him to hurt the feelings of his devoted wife, Patty (Patricia Clarkson), although she sticks by him.

Hollywood has never been particularly successful when translating sports stories to the screen. I can think of only a few sports films I’ve felt were true to life in terms of athleticism. Three that stand out are Downhill Racer (1969), Hoosiers (1986) and Eight Men Out (1986). Despite these, Miracle is, hands down, the best sports film I’ve ever seen. The hockey action sequences seem realistic, although hockey is the one sport I have never played, so I can’t really speak from personal experience as I can with films about basketball, baseball, football, and tennis. Also, I’m not a fan anymore, although I was a fan in the ‘50s and I remember guys like Gordie Howe, Lou Fontanato, Gump Worsley (who played goalie without a mask), and even the Boston Bruins’ Uke Line of Johnny Bucyk, Bronco Horvath, and Vic Stasiuk.

Director Gavin O’Connor and Cinematographer Dan Stoloff capture the speed and violence of the sport with quick cuts, close-ups, and audio that let you hear the blades sweeping across the ice. Sports Coordinator Mark Ellis chose all the players for their parts because they were hockey players first. I’ve never seen more lifelike action scenes in any sports movie, and the reason is that the actors are really playing the game and they know what they’re doing…no stunt doubles. When you see a check, that's the actor checking or being checked, and there's one that's really violent. The game recreations are remarkably vivid. Even the equipment used and worn by the players in the film is circa 1984.

Russell, in my mind an underrated actor who always rises to the occasion, gives another terrific performance. Clarkson is exceptionally good as his wife. The script (Eric Guggenheim) is well written without being jingoistic. Miracle shows what Brooks and the team had to go through, and how hard Brooks had to drive his players, before winning the big game against the Soviets. It wasn’t easy. The team was composed basically of young college kids and they were going up against the best team in the world, hardened professionals, even though at that time the Soviet block played the hypocritical Olympics game that they were amateurs despite the fact that it was their livelihood. This really was David vs. Goliath. Brooks drove them hard so that they would be in as good condition as the Soviets.

The realism is enhanced by the use of sportscaster Al Michaels’ actual broadcasts of the game in 1984. Brooks himself, who died shortly after principal photography was finished, was an advisor.

This is a terrific film for everyone.

February 14, 2004

The End