Buena Vista // 2004 // 136 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 9th, 2004
"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
In 1980, the United States hockey team pulled off an upset of ludicrous proportions. It was then, at the winter games in Lake Placid, that coach Herb Brooks led an odd amalgam of college hockey players to victory over a seemingly unbeatable Soviet super-squad. Now the legend gets a budget-backed, big-screen telling of the events that led up to that most improbable of victories.
Herb Brooks was a driven man. A premier amateur hockey player and a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1960, Brooks was dealt a dastardly hand days before he would take the ice -- he was waived. Crushed, he was forced to watch his team win the gold medal while he sat on the couch at his home.
Jump ahead two decades, and Brooks is again a hair's breadth from the Olympic gold, this time as coach. Kurt Russell portrays Brooks, the legendary -- and somewhat infamous -- tactician that put together, conditioned, and trained the squad that took it to the Soviets and pulled off the greatest upset ever (aside from that whole Visigoths/Rome thing).
But before the revelry and the iconic stature, Brooks and his boys had to work. Real hard. To assemble his team, Brooks invites legions of the country's top-tier amateur hockey players to tryout for a week, and see if they have the snowballs to make the cut.
Shockingly, the coach forms his squad after only a few hours of training; he already knew who he wanted, who fit into his new plan to redefine the way the U.S. plays hockey against the powerful Eastern Bloc teams.
Brooks' bold new strategy is a hard sell, especially to his superiors (and even, at some times, to his assistant coach). At first his players are confused and unfocused. But as the months wear on, Brooks' drill sergeant approach, remolding the players into a unified team, serving a single purpose (winning the gold for their country) takes shape.
As in all sports movies -- real or fictional -- the teammates cultivate their friendships, even after some tense introductory moments. They realize they must work utterly together, within their coach's new system, to have even a slight chance at bringing down the "Goliath-akov" that is the Soviet national team. Meanwhile, Brooks must also reconcile the enormous pressure of his coaching job with the daily demands of parenting and husband-hood.
The practices, workouts, scrimmages, blood, vomit, and sweat culminate in the game everyone was waiting for -- the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, as manifested on the ice, and recreated in the final 20 minutes of the movie.
BEWARE! SPOILERS AHEAD! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
The United States wins.
I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for most sports movies. Though 85% of them are predictable (hint: the protagonists usually come out on top), sports movies that are done well manage to keep me riveted.
To me, that is the best compliment you can pay a sports movie. If the film can generate tension and suspense, even though the outcome is already known, then, fella, it's a success.
That's why I enjoy Hoosiers so much. There's no way those hick kids are going to drop the final game to the hulking, inner-city school champs. Yet there is still enough story (real or fabricated...er, "exaggerated") to keep the viewers interested.
In this way, Miracle succeeds wildly. As I watched director Gavin O'Connor's long, relentless recreation of the Soviet game, I was transfixed. It was truly edge-of-your-seat stuff, and I'm not even anywhere close to a hockey fan.
I guess there are a smattering of moments that could be deemed "clichéd," but really, how is that possible if it all really happened? Of course the score of the final game will be close. Sure there will be some last-second heroics. The underdog players will undoubtedly come through in the clutch, and David will fire his slingshot rock square into the forehead of the mighty giant.
It's all there, and yet when it seems like Miracle can easily fall into the pit of hokeyness, many things propel it into the Honorary Sports Movie Locker of Goodness.
First is Kurt Russell, who is awesome as Herb Brooks. It is in his character that the story finds its anchor. Some of the hockey players are given brief moments of development, but this is Brooks' story told from his point of view. Russell does the real-life Brooks (who passed away before the movie was released) justice in his portrayal.
This is a man who loves his team, loves the kids, but does not show it. He knows what buttons to push, what fires to light, to get his team to work, and to get the individual players to let loose the greatness he sees in them. There are plenty of inspirational speeches, but none are dripping with emotion -- none are saccharine. Brooks ain't lovable, but he'll kick your ass all over the place on the ice. Russell gets this across masterfully.
Second, was the casting. The filmmakers opted to go with hockey players and turn them into actors instead of the other way around. As such, the on-ice action is intense and believable. Skill-less hockey players would still look skill-less, no matter how many cute camera tricks and CGI pucks the director implanted.
Lastly is the story itself, a permanent fixture in American sports lore, and important in the terms of the geopolitical climate of the times (Judge's Note: I was, of course only three at the time, and had more important things to worry about besides gas shortages, Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and hostage crises...you know, like how my boogers tasted.) But America's improbable win -- coming before the time of the U.S. Basketball Dream Teams disemboweling their opponents -- served as a real shot of sunshine in some dark and dreary days.
Disney has put together a nice two-disc set. The first disc, the movie, contains a sharp widescreen transfer that is a beauty to behold during the hockey scenes. The colors of the jerseys, contrasting with the sheen of the ice and the roaring crowd is striking and brilliant. The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is surprisingly aggressive, giving the surround speakers some duty, particularly when the action hits the ice and you hear the puck sail by your left ear, or a forward charges on your right. Some of the monster hits pack a wallop. I didn't feel there was enough crowd noise to get me completely enthralled, though.
Director Gavin O'Connor, editor John Gilroy, and Director of Photography Daniel Stoloff deliver the usual fact and trivia-filled commentary, made different by their obvious love for the story.
Disc Two contains the rest of the special features, all of them worthwhile. "First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers" offers some candid, raw footage of a roundtable discussion with the coach himself as he ruminated on his coaching methods and his personal history. Cool stuff to watch after you've seen the movie, essentially, about his life.
A featurette about the cast -- "From Hockey to Hollywood" -- offers profiles on some of the actors and also doubles as an authentic behind-the-scenes documentary.
Another "making-of" bit spotlights the sound editing, which proved to be quite amazing as every single hockey sounds -- skating, shots, hits, all of it -- was engineered.
An ESPN discussion with actual members of the Olympic team and Kurt Russell, hosted by Linda Cohn (who kind of freaks me out), gives some more insight into Brooks, the man and the coach. Some funny outtakes finish off the set.
The movie is fairly long, and the first half does have a tendency to drag a bit. Be warned.
A great sports movie and a great DVD package, Miracle scores big. Sure there's lots of flag-waving, chanting, national pride, and sneering Soviets, but, hey, I like my country!
Good movie. Good extras. Good presentation. Miracle lands a hat trick. No penalty box for you. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Feature Commentary
* "First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers"
* "From Hockey to Hollywood"
* ESPN Roundtable
* "The Sound of Miracle"
* Official Site