MIRACLE (Gavin O’Connor, 2004)

Written by Eric Guggenheim and directed by Gavin O’Connor, Miracle is a mess of a movie, a cliché-ridden Disney sports melodrama revolving around the unexpected victory of the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. It narrows this topic to Coach Herb Brooks’s relentless preparation of his hand-picked team of dedicated amateurs, but it never lights on a theme or a thesis relevant to this topic, so there’s no basis on which to shape the material, including this and eliminating that, in order to help develop the theme. As a result, everything is crammed in, resulting in a piece that is a stupefying 135 minutes long, and which seems like three or more different movies rolled into one. Miracle isn’t about much of anything. Everything in it is more or less irrelevant, because there is nothing for any of it to be relevant to.

This is a pity, especially as a couple of interesting themes, early on, suggest themselves. Brooks chooses for the team, rather than “the best players,” “the right players”—that is to say, those he feels are capable of transcending their individuality for the cooperative functioning of the team as a whole. His motivation is strategic rather than ideological; Brooks hopes to beat the world’s best team, the Soviet team, “at their own game.” Still, O’Connor might have unified his rambling material along a blue line of irony, since, while the winning Soviet approach to the game is an extension of the nation’s socialism, the losing U.S. approach is an extension of American rugged individualism. (Prior to 1980, the U.S. team hadn’t won the gold medal in twenty years.) O’Connor hints a parallel of national vulnerability, citing the U.S.’s recently ended war in Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s current invasion of Afghanistan, but all this turns out to be mere period window dressing. We never get the promised balancing act between Soviet-U.S. Cold War presumptive, arrogant similarities and foundational differences. Moreover, a brief shift to exchanges among the U.S. players equally fails to submit the material to another potential theme: the transformation of Brooks’s ambition and aims, unbeknownst to him, by the teammates’ own interests and prerogatives. Other possible themes similarly fall by the wayside.

In addition, the film is rhetorical and phony. On the homefront, Brooks and his wife, Patty, endlessly bicker as an index of the pressure on the poor sonuvabitch. (It falls to gifted Patricia Clarkson to give the worst performance imaginable as Patty Brooks.) Patty explains to Herb that she can’t be in two places at one time, asking him to please pick up either their son from sports practice or their daughter from ballet class the following day. Brooks, however, has an obligation stemming from his coaching the U.S. Olympic team. Oh? This is beyond his wife’s understanding? One would think her kvetching reasonable if Brooks were opting for some golf with friends; but he is coaching the U.S. Olympic hockey team, for gosh sake. He just might be out of commission for routine family chauffering, wouldn’t one think? Perhaps Patty simply wants confirmation that the family Herb is necessarily neglecting still matters to him (neither of the Brooks’s children ever enters a single frame of the film), but her invocation of the tyranny of false alternatives—since I can pick up only one child, you must pick up the other—leaves one a little dumbfounded. Shrewdly, Brooks barks at her, “You’ll work it out,” as we wonder why this nonsensical petulance of hers was even included in the film.

An even phonier exchange between the Brookses arrives later, at the Olympics. Patty notes a letter she received from someone in Texas—a Bush, perhaps?—exhorting her husband to trounce “the Commies.” Herb uses this opportunity to dismiss the whole idea of politicizing sports. Whoa! What a feast of cake for the eating and still having, for O’Connor thus manages to raise the issue just to dismiss it, just to have it in the film! This creepy, loathsome dishonesty is typical of the film’s manipulative tack.

The scenes on the ice during competition are strenuous and tedious, a rush of noise and action rendered all the more incomprehensible by the overlay of televised commentary. Whip those cameras! Splice those shots! The film’s solemn coda, to the effect that U.S. Olympic teams in this and other sports—they are called “dream teams”—now consist of professionals rather than amateurs, implies a loss of innocence, youth, possibility, and somehow this shimmers with a reminder of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The coda, delivered as character voiceover by the actor who plays Brooks, brings a meandering film to a salient point.

The entire film is poorly acted except for the lead performance by a fattened-up Kurt Russell, looking like death warmed over, as Herb Brooks. (Brooks, a consultant on the film, died in a road accident just prior to the film’s release.) For about a minute Russell’s acting, teary-eyed, is repellent, but the rest of it is concentrated, astute and charming. (The best test of this charm is a long passage in which Brooks punishingly keeps the team, past the point of exhaustion, on the ice at practice after a pre-Olympics match. We like watching Brooks do this!) The semblance of unity that the film manages to project derives solely from the intense nature of Russell’s contribution. An actor of resources somewhere between low and nil, Russell, this once, winningly comes through—like the team that Brooks coached.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s