Sometimes, Sigmund Freud confirmed, a cigar is just a cigar. But a sports movie is never just about sports. The positive values of teamwork, discipline, bravery, determination, and overcoming impossible odds to rise from underdog to champion are the themes that regularly fill the emotional spaces in sports dramas between the whizzy shots of balls and pucks in play. And to that pro-tested formula, Miracle – the dramatized story of how the United States ice hockey team beat the world-champion Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics – adds patriotism, too, lifted from its original era and reformatted for the uplift of a careworn, post-9/11 audience. The arena-size tribal chant ”USA! USA! USA!” has become a yahoo signature grunt at world sporting events; in attempting to cut through the cockiness and return to the mantra’s roots of optimism, ”Miracle” alloys sports glory with a flag-waving halftime show.
In other words, there’s more than a little bit of didactic ”Seabiscuit”-ry in this inspirational true story. In fact, ”Miracle,” directed by Gavin O’Connor with echoes of the plainspoken grit he brought to his fine 1999 indie debut, ”Tumbleweeds,” skates somewhere between the bracing, unsentimental power of ”The Rookie” (produced by the same team) and the oaty here’s-to-the-American-little-guy romanticism of that more recent metaphor-rich horse drama. As in ”The Rookie” (in which a middle-aged pitcher gets a second chance to fulfill a dream), ”Miracle” is organized around a man’s middle-aged passion, that of Minnesota hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) – whose own Olympic hopes were thwarted when he played for the hockey team in 1960 – for shaping an American squad (average age: 22) into players tough enough to hold their own against the invincible Soviets. ”You’re chasing after something you didn’t get – that you may never get,” Herb’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) explains to her husband in one of the many directional declarations supplied in the first produced feature screenplay by Eric Guggenheim. (Other guideposts: ”That kid doesn’t have a shot in hell of making this team,” spoken before the kid makes the team; and ”Craig’s game has been off since his mom died,” spoken in preparation for Jim Craig’s astounding goalie work in the big game.)
”Miracle” – the title taken from TV announcer Al Michaels’ famous game-clinching cheer, ”Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” – wins not when it exhorts by word but when it shows by action. And some of the most riveting action takes place when Coach Brooks is alone, quiet. Russell is another one of our ”USA! USA! USA!”-bred crop of handsome man-not-boy actors who (like Alec Baldwin and Dennis Quaid) is finding exciting new performance freedom in middle age. Outfitted in 1970s hair, Gerald Ford-era plaid pants, and a dandy Minnesotan accent, he’s wonderfully compelling as a tough, taciturn, driven leader. ”Miracle”’s most concrete achievement is in showing how, step by demanding step, Brooks was able to transform 20 young men used to playing as stellar individuals – the American way – into an unintimidate-able, egoless team, i.e., the Soviet way. ”Who do you play for?” Brooks says, challenging athlete after athlete until it dawns on one of them, during a marathon training session, that their various school teams are not the unifying answer he’s after.
”Miracle” is shot in a palette of red, white, blue, and hostage-crisis gray right down to the colors of the clouds and the neckties; only Clarkson and Russell get to deviate in tones of beige and powder blue, their relationship carefully tended with contemporary sensitivity to the importance of wives. The attractive young men who make up Team USA, meanwhile, are their own best advertisements for phys ed, nearly all of them hockey players first and actors…as of now. (Eddie Cahill, cast as goalie Jim Craig, had a recurring role on ”Friends.”) Their unstudied openness contrasts pointedly with Russell’s tight concentration, as well as with energetic action sequences of skates and sticks on ice.
What the U.S. ice hockey team achieved was magnificent, of course, on its own athletic terms; so was Seabiscuit’s race against War Admiral. But the home crowd’s sis-boom-bah frenzy has taken on new shadings in the decades since both those events. ”Miracle” has got a good offensive game as an inspirational how-to about team building; it’s in the reassuring defense of American can-do-ism that the movie veers from honestly serving the sport to boosterishly rewarding those who only stand and cheer.