When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates. And the name on the front is a hell of alot more important than the one on the back! Get that through your head!
Based on the real life backstory of the 1980 U.S. Men’s Hockey team, a team that defied all odds and rallied a nation by defeating the Soviet Union during a time of great sociopolitical tension, Miracle is also the very human story behind one of the greatest moments in sports history. Seen through the world of coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, this great moment goes back to being seen for what it really was, a hockey game. But as we find out, even something so basic can transcend its usual simplicity and become something more. Not just for the folks that watched it, but for those that played it, as well.
Why We Love It
I have been waiting for months to find the perfect time to write about this particular film — one of my all-time favorite sports movies, and perhaps the greatest hockey film ever made. And with the Winter Olympics taking place in Vancouver this week, there appears to be no better time to unleash my love for Gavin O’Connor’s triumphant film. It seems just as miraculous that, in his first studio film (having delivered Tumbleweeds at Sundance in 1999), O’Connor delivers such a moving love letter to an era of America. His movie captures not only the spirit of this true-life rag tag team, but of the nation that gathered behind them, waiting and hoping for a miracle.
Perhaps the place to start the conversation about why this film works so well — and subsequently gives me chills at the end, even after numerous viewings — is in the performance of Kurt Russell. For those who haven’t been following hockey their entire lives, it is difficult to explain in words what Herb Brooks meant to the sport. He was one of the great innovators, one of the great personalities, and a shining role model for so many great American hockey players and coaches today. Herb Brooks was perhaps the most important figure in American hockey history. And his personality and demeanor fit the bill. As we see in Miracle, Herb was a calculated tyrant with Team USA. He was demanding, relentless and unwavering in his dedication to a goal that was, for him, very personal. In his performance, Kurt Russell disappears into a shadow of Brooks, completely embodying that spirit. He is stern when Brooks was stern, soft when Brooks was soft and he stands 100 feet tall when Brooks was equally the titan. It will go down as one of the most underestimated performances of Russell’s life, but perhaps his crowning achievement.
But performance alone cannot carry a film. Yes, the performance of Russell (and everyone around him) is great. And sure, the fact that O’Connor found the perfect set of hockey players/actors with the right amount of charisma and authenticity mirrors the way Herb Brooks picked his team. But there’s more to this film than that. Mark Isham’s score is thunderous and triumphant, beating out every emotion. Dan Stoloff’s creative camera work on the ice delivers fast-paced action that is perfect for each setting. When Team USA first meets up with the Soviets, we believe the commies to be standing 10-foot tall, bearing down on our heroes like giant dogs ready to pounce on unsuspecting mice. That first game moves fast, and even though it only lasts a few minutes, we can feel the disjointed, hellish experience that Team USA must have felt. Conversely, the final game against the Soviets is shot in a way that puts the American players at the emotional advantage, slowing things down enough for us to feel their energy, and like them, we begin to believe. This effect is achieved not only through Stoloff’s cinematography, but also through efficient editing by John Gilroy. Miracle tells us the story of a nation, the story of a family of hockey players, a story of political and social unrest — a story that takes place over the course of a year. And it does it at the blistering pace of a hockey game, grabbing hold of its audience and thrusting them into the action for two hours, never letting up so long as to let them take a look at the clock.
Moment We Fell in Love
Easily the film’s turning point is the moment after the team’s first game together in Norway. They’ve played halfheartedly, and coach Brooks is ready after the game to make them pay. For what seems like hours, the players skate back and forth, line to line, because as we know — the legs feed the wolf. It is a moment that defined Team USA’s road to the Olympics, one that showed how Herb Brooks would never let up without getting the very best from his players. In this moment, Kurt Russell’s intensity is off the charts, and we feel the emotional weight of the team’s situation. It serves to set us up for later triumphs, as we feel as though we’ve worked alongside Mike Eruzione and company. As though we too deserve to celebrate in the end.
As I mentioned in my opening, this is a movie that never fails to give me chills in its final moments. Director Gavin O’Connor inserts a wonderful little bit of nostalgia near the end that really drives things home. In one moment, he beautifully recreates the game-winning goal by Mike Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Demsey) and the high-stepping celebration that has been replayed so many times since. And in the next, he cuts together the tense final moments of the game. Even though we know the US wins, it is still heart-wrenching to see them try and hold off the Russians. And then, in what may be one of his great directorial decisions, he cuts to archived audio of Al Michaels’ original broadcast from the 1980 Olympics and we hear his voice shouting “Do you believe in miracles?” just the way it was heard by millions of people who watched it live. It is the perfect way to relive a moment built so vividly by such an expertly constructed film. It is a moment that gives me chills even as I’m describing it in text. If the measure of a film is whether or not it evokes an emotional response from its audience, then Miracle is a film that passes with flying colors, red, white and blue.
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