Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 20, 2004 6:27 pm 
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The performance of a lifetime

Miracle is, in very basic ways, a standard sports movie. It’s about how the American Olympic hockey team defied all odds and won the gold at Lake Placid in 1980, defeating the undefeatable Soviet Union and Finland. The movie’s an unabashed star vehicle for Kurt Russell as winning Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks. Following a standard sports movie pattern, one by one team members emerge from the crowd for little moments in the spotlight and then fade back into the team. Typically, the coach has to struggle with his wife because as a husband and father he's barely present for the year of the Olympics. Not surprisingly, cohorts and rivals challenge his methods. And inevitably, a climactic big game comes at the end to rouse the audience and resolve everything exactly as we knew it would.

On the face of it, the 1980 US hockey gold medal might seem politically narrow and trite, the celebration of the last big screaming jingoistic Cold War sports victory. But in this movie, it really isn’t. It’s not about politics: it’s about the game, Herb Brooks says, and since the coach sets the tone throughout, we buy that. What gives you the shivers and raises the blood pressure isn't jingoism but that old crowd pleaser, the story of an underdog coming from behind to win. And it's true this time: the story really happened, more or less anyway. And we get to see some real hockey players play hockey too.

Miracle isn’t overwhelmed by its conventions or its function as a star vehicle. Kurt Russell transforms the movie and redefines the vehicle because he's self effacing without ever ceasing to dominate the story. He wields Herb‘s gruff manner with more subtlety than Gene Hackman or Denzel Washington – two actors who've done this kind of role so often they could do it in their sleep – would be likely to manage. They've lost the feeling; Russell still cares.

Russell succeeds in making his character's toughness subservient to his goals as a coach. He's aloof, hard, even mean with the players as they meet and work out while one by one all but twenty players are cut from the team. His assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich), gets to be the good guy -- and does so winningly -- while Herb Brooks's distance, hardness and meanness play a key part in his strategic plan. Herb galvanizes the men by making them angry. He's not trying to be liked; his eye is on the prize. If they become one with him eventually it’s because they realize he cares as passionately as they do about winning.

At the end he comments years later that now pros play in the Olympic team sports and we have `dream teams,' but all that means is the games we dream of never happen any more. In 1980 he wasn't looking for a combination of the best amateur hockey players: he was looking for the players who'd play best together -- not for a dream team but for the team that can win at Lake Placid against all the odds. He wanted the best talent, the hungriest guys, the players with the biggest need to prove themselves and win -- a team that really played as a team, all the way.

If his family life suffers, it’s not dysfunctional but a price to pay for being as focused as he has to be. Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Brooks, dolled up in this non-indy role, is fresh and without sentimentality. Her indy quirkiness, toned down an octave, makes her seem authentic, not just window dressing.

It’s an important original touch that real hockey players play the team members. They're not just athletic actors who look good with their shirts off: they're guys who're fast on the ice, and they're out there doing their own skating. The director shines here because except for one ensemble scene early on, there's no awkwardness in the acting of these young men, and their presence gives all the dressing room and game sequences a sense of reality they'd never otherwise have. Hardly any of the players stand out, and that's good. The movie avoids clichés about oddball characters who overcome a laundry list of personal obstacles to become winning athletes.

Scenes are intense, but nothing in the movie is crude or sentimental. Take Herb's elimination of the twenty-first man, for instance: the time when he calls his last cut in to tell him. This is a guy who's `done everything I've told him to do.' `There's no easy way to do this.' This is a wrenching little scene, but there's nothing corny about it.

Understated, cliché-free writing reenforces Russell's subtle acting. When a star player gets a serious knee injury, Herb just doesn't say much. He avoids giving the player the doctor’s prediction that he’ll be out four games and just says they have to get the knee photographed and then see. He's merely present. There's no speechifying.

We don't see a lot of hockey before the final few games. During the early workouts and eliminations we see Herb make the team members do the same fast turning and skating exercise over and over to the point of exhaustion. No team has ever been able to outskate the Soviets, he says. They've got to be able to do that to win. The point is borne out in the key game when the Americans do indeed beat the Soviets by outskating them. They've also got an absolutely brilliant goalie, Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), the one man who's shown his individuality by refusing to take a psychological test. The final couple of games leading to victory are covered almost play by play. This contributes authenticity. There's too much crosscutting to the coaches and fan reaction shots at the end for my taste, but Miracle is a movie about a coach and a victory, not just about a hockey game. As the games develop, you realize that Brooks truly picked and honed the talent he needed to win the gold.

The movie particularly shines at that inevitable clichéd moment, the final pep talk before the key victory. To begin with, Russell has good material to work with: the speech he delivers is extremely well written. `Great moments come from great opportunities…' he begins. There's not a word out of place. It's eloquent, yet Russell's strong, unflashy delivery strips it of any sense of patness or rhetoric. It's the kind of speech you could memorize, a Gettysburg address of pre-game pep talks. And its creative logic is brilliant: `If they played us ten games, they might win nine. But they have only one game, and we're going to win it.'


In its simple way, Miracle is very well done, but Kurt Russell's acting in the lead role is more than well done: it's the performance of a lifetime. And because of Russell's restraint his costars shine like winners, every one.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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