Review: ‘Miracle’

As Americans, we have collective experiences that galvanize our attention and bind us together as a nation. Tragedy is often at the heart of these experiences — Pearl Harbor, The Kennedy Assassination, The Challenger Explosion, and September 11th are the biggies — all Capital Letter Events. We remember where we were, what we were doing and how we felt as these events unfolded, and these emotions become solidified over time by the constant reminder of film and sound. In the media age, they mark time and define our shared history, connecting all of us to our shared feelings about what it means to be an American.

The real hockey “Miracle” at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, for many Americans, was one of those rare defining collective moments, (and a joyous one this time), that renewed our collective spirit at an otherwise humbling time in our nation’s history. As a 17-year old in 1980, I was so inspired by the “Miracle” that I decided to go to a WCHA university and while there, I worked hard to get into college hockey journalism, and after college, eventually worked for USA Hockey in a similar capacity. During my hockey career, I crossed paths with many of the real people represented in the 1980 story — players, coaches, management and media; as well as their counterparts on the Soviet side. Like anything in life, the closer you get to a subject, the more real and less mythical it becomes — not that that diminishes either this film or the actual hockey achievement. But it does force a more critical eye.

For most Americans who saw the real events of 1980, the story was deceptively simple. Twenty young American boys-next-door and their intense coach, the late Herb Brooks, upset the mighty and virtually unbeatable rival Soviets, then went on to win an improbable gold medal in a sport that was not really our own. That team grabbed hold of our national psyche and brought a nation to cheers, tears and the rekindled belief that with hard work, anything was possible. The video images remain fresh in our mind even today — captain Mike Eruzione’s winning goal, the Al Michaels countdown, the unbridled joy of the on-ice celebration and The Soviet team standing in disbelief.

Why are we still so enthralled with this particular event? Yes, it helped bring us out of our national funk, but more than that, I believe it tapped into a primal national trait — the use of sports as an easy metaphor for defining who we are as a people. The American experience is one that always celebrates the underdog. Indeed, we’re a nation of underdogs — castoffs from other nations who fashioned a world superpower from a backwater in short order through the so-called “American” values of faith in self, optimism and hard work.

The sociologists will tell us that we saw ourselves in those USA players. We didn’t see them as the highly skilled hockey players they really were (12 of them went on to the NHL). Rather, we saw them as middle-sized American college kids that looked just like all the other kids of the day, playing for each other and for their country to beat a big, mysterious and scary rival. And when Eruzione waved his teammates on the gold medal stand, it was all of America that ran up to join him through the magic of what experts call “transference,” which speaks to the bonds between a fan and his team, or between a country and its people.

The real contribution of college hockey to the movie is the East vs. West college rivalry, a huge obstacle to national team building at that time. In those days, there were no US Select 16 and 17 programs to bring together top players before their college days. … By getting the players to hate him instead of each other, we see Brooks build his team’s unity that will pay ultimate dividends.

Fortunately as Americans, we have also always excelled at creating cultural mythology as well as creating real achievement. We’ve all seen how the image geniuses at NFL Films can elevate a football game into a Herculean event, with slow-motion passes spiraling up and down into outstretched hands, accompanied by stirring music, booming narration and images of linemen exhaling to create the “Frozen Tundra.” We’ve also seen how Olympic image makers like Bud Greenspan and the late Roone Arledge can use their storytelling skills to turn even the most obscure athletes into Olympian Gods.

But despite our skills in sports mythology-making, Hollywood hockey movies and other sports movies usually fail because the inherent drama of real live sport, to those who follow it, always surpasses the manufactured drama of film. In addition, Hollywood is famous for simplifying stories and employing actors whose athletic skills rarely convince us that they could actually play the sport they pretend to play, often stripping the film of credibility in the minds of those who know better. (Consider actors in hockey movies such as Ryan O’Neal in “Love Story”, Russell Crowe in “Mystery, Alaska” and Rob Lowe in “Youngblood,” none of whom could skate well. And, even worse, Karl Malden not skating at all in his wooden portrayal of Herb Brooks in the dreadful 1981 TV movie “Miracle on Ice.”)

At the same time, because our sport is a small one in the grand sports cosmos of American life, perhaps any movie that features our sport is a welcome addition. Many of us can quote at least 10 lines from the caricature hockey film “Slap Shot” nearly 30 years after the movie was released.

So America is ready for “Miracle,” and kudos to Disney for re-telling the story 24 years later. The prime demographic of movie-goers are too young or were not even born when the real events happened. Getting them into the movie theatre and putting them in the action and drama of Olympic hockey and American history is a great contribution in its own right.

The film itself is definitely enjoyable, though make no mistake — it’s no “Citizen Kane”. Nor should it be. Critics can find faults — the story and script are simple, the players are hockey players first and serviceable but not great actors, and some of the scenes may not resonate with everyone. But for what it is — a Disney-made, feel-good movie that tries very hard to replicate a great moment in sports, related in the historical context of its time and what it meant to many of us, it delivers.

Credit Miracle’s executive producer, Ross Greenburg, whose excellent 2001 HBO documentary “Do You Believe in Miracles?” set the standard for the retelling of this story. Greenberg and director Gavin O’Connor merge mostly truth with just enough fiction to sell the story to a mass audience. People cheered in the theatre at my showing, and for that sort of enthusiasm alone, it is worth seeing. And as hockey fans, we all have a “moral obligation” to support this movie.

The film begins with an effective overlay of socio-political context of the era that continues as an important theme throughout the film, often in the background. The late ’70s and early ’80s were mostly grim times in America. We see a litany of failure — gas lines, rampant inflation, fallout from Vietnam and Watergate, the American hostages in Iran, Three Mile Island, Soviets invading Afganistan, President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, even disco and those god-awful “leisure suits” are vivid reminders that America had “lost its way” as a political and social leader of the world.

As the historical montage turns to action, we first visit the conference room in Colorado Springs, where Brooks is being interviewed for the Olympic hockey coaching job. Although the film doesn’t say so, history has since revealed that Brooks was a third choice to coach the 1980 US team, after two college legends, Harvard’s Bill Cleary and Michigan Tech’s John MacInnes, turned down the job. We suddenly come face to face with the well-known, virtually lifelong tension between the dictatorial Brooks and the more consensus-driven leadership at what was then the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS — now USA Hockey). As a former employee of that organization, I can tell you that good healthy debate and organizational politics all play an important role in advancing the game, and all of us are better for that kind of dialogue.

Patrick O'Brien Demsey, playing BU's Mike Eruzione, reacts in the scene of the famous winning goal against the Soviets.

Patrick O’Brien Demsey, playing BU’s Mike Eruzione, reacts in the scene of the famous winning goal against the Soviets.

Brooks’ stated strategy, to change the US playing style from a traditional North American style to a hybrid of North American and European style, was revolutionary at the time, and in hindsight, I can see why some in power were reticent to change. Simply put, American hockey at that time was not as bad as it was made out to be in the movie, which refers to a “15-1 loss to the Czech B team” as the primary reason for change. Unmentioned in the movie was the 1972 US Olympic team that won a silver medal at Sapporro, and the 1976 Olympic team finishing a respectable fourth at Innsbruck. This is not to say Team USA would be favored at Lake Placid, but the U.S. teams of that era were already competitive, not sad sack.

At the movie’s center is actor Kurt Russell, whose portrayal of the late and legendary coach Herb Brooks is so good, he actually becomes Brooks, with a dead-on, St. Paul Minnesota accent, his working class neighborhood speech cadence and mannerisms, his real pre-game speeches (“You were born to be here”) and his sayings (“The legs feed the wolf”). Russell is Brooks even down to the horrible plaid clothing ensembles.

“Kurt Russell absolutely nails Herb,” said 1980 captain Mike Eruzione to CanWest News Service after a recent screening. “His mannerisms. His speech. Everything. I’m watching one scene when Herb’s skating around, talking to us, and Kurt’s tapping the blade of his stick on the ice, just the way Herbie did. I was just bowled over.

“One of the guys couldn’t stop laughing at a scene where Herbie’s eating — just eating. Because Kurt Russell was holding his fork upside down, just the way Herbie did when he ate.”

Reportedly, Russell spent some time with Brooks last year, before principal filming to learn about this complicated coach. Like Brooks, Russell never became too chummy with the actors playing his team, keeping a personal distance similar to the one Brooks kept from the real team.

With the lack of acting experience on the hockey “team” it is Russell who carries the movie from that standpoint. But that’s okay. O’Connor’s decision to cast recent college hockey players instead of actors was a good one. O’Connor had former Wisconsin Badger player Chris Nelson and other hockey advisors run a hockey tryout camp for hundreds of aspiring players for these roles, with a selection process not unlike the real Olympic team. And college fans will recognize former college players like former Minnesota Gopher Nate Miller (playing former UMD Bulldog John Harrington) and former Maine player Mike Mantenuto (playing former BU Terrier Jack O’Callahan). Perhaps the nicest touch of all was actor Billy Schneider, who plays the part of his real father, Olympian Buzz Schneider.

What we might lose in acting skills, we gain in the hockey scenes. These guys can play. And perhaps because none of these hockey actors stand out as “movie stars,” they are more believable both as hockey players and as part of a team. The camaraderie seems real, and we warm quickly to these guys, helped along by the real-life mediator role played by assistant coach Craig Patrick (well played by veteran actor Noah Emmerich).

Patricia Clarkson, known for her strong roles in independent films, turns in a decent but unmemorable performance as Herb Brooks’ wife, Patti, mostly attributable to a script that gives her character little dimension beyond that of a hockey wife. But to hockey fans, that’s fine. We want hockey, and this movie gives us plenty.

The major moments in the team selection and the team development process are well-covered. The 62-game Team USA pre-Olympic tour is highlighted in several scenes, with emphasis on the true-to-life post-game activities in Oslo, where, after a lackluster tie vs. Norway, the U.S. players were forced to skate “Herbies” (the team nickname for a skating drill similar to “suicides” in basketball) even after the lights were turned off by the rink manager. It is a pivotal point in the film, as we see his team beginning to gel. Later, we also see the 10-3 Soviet drubbing of Team USA in a tuneup game at Madison Square Garden.

College hockey fans will revel in the attention given our brand of hockey. In particular, fans from Minnesota, BU, UMD, UNH, Wisconsin and Harvard will be smiling when their programs are mentioned. The real contribution of college hockey to the movie is the East vs. West college rivalry, a huge obstacle to national team building at that time. In those days, there were no US Select 16 and 17 programs to bring together top players before their college days, and recruiting was still largely regional not national as today, so most players didn’t know each other before they had to play together. By getting the players to hate him instead of each other, we see Brooks build his team’s unity that will pay ultimate dividends.

We also enjoy the team bonding process — nicknames fly, and the Minnesota and Boston accents add credibility, and a wonderful scene with the “Conehead” line of players from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range in Brooks’ office adds a nice dimension on team chemistry. A nice touch is that we see actors playing real players, like UNH’s Ralph Cox and Minnesota’s Tim Harrer, even though neither player made the final roster.

The attention to detail is largely excellent — uniforms, jersey nameplates, sticks and skates all are exact to the period, and both the real and reprised Al Michaels and Ken Dryden commentating/narration adds more drama and authenticity. Even the actor playing the Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, bushy eyebrows and all, stood in front of his players on the bench, as the real Tikhonov did. Even Brooks’ well-known dressing room confrontation with forward Rob McClanahan during the Sweden game has been included, with the minor substitution of “candy-ass” for the real insult that Brooks used, “cake-eater.”

Hockey fans will love that the game action is not “dumbed down” for a mass audience. There are no slow-motion game-winning goals. The actors are all hockey players first, and it shows. You feel the tension because the action is shown largely in real time, mostly at ice level and provides, in my opinion, some of the best sports action sequences ever captured on film. The 30 minutes of the movie given to the Soviet game gives you the sense of being on the ice yourself. The hits are ferocious, the goalie saves are great and often seen through a maze of defenders, and the major plays in the real game have been meticulously reconstructed to match the originals.

With the real shots on goal 39-16 in favor of the Soviets, viewers re-experience the feeling that the U.S. is truly hanging on in those final 10 minutes, as shifts shorten and the Soviets apply pressure. U.S. netminder Jim Craig (played in the action sequences by ex-Edmonton Oilers star Bill Ranford) was under siege for much of the action, and we are reminded that while Eruzione’s goal is remembered by the masses, it was Craig’s performance that truly won the game.

So, by all means, go see this movie in the theatre. Cheer for the boys and don’t forget to stay all the way through the credits, which provide interesting updates on the lives of the real players today, as well as a tribute to Herb Brooks, who “never saw” this movie, but “lived it.”

Tom Douglis is former editor of College Hockey Magazine and was PR Coordinator at USA Hockey from 1990-1992.