If nothing else, the Superbowl Reveal has underlined the longstanding U.S. faith in a link between morality and sports spectacle. And, just in case the current scandal has you fretting over the strength of this link, here comes upstanding nostalgic reinforcement. Disney’s Miracle is an unabashed celebration of the connections among sports, national pride, and the wonder of whiteguyness. At its center is the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, put together by the much beloved and recently deceased Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell, whose ambling determination, hip sideburns, and slick plaid pants make the character almost painfully endearing). The Coach and his young players are miraculous because back then, no one thought they could medal, let alone win the gold. And because, according to the movie, “America” was in need of “a win.”
Miracle opens by recalling the dismal historical moment that Brooks and his boys inherited: a series of sounds and images run up to 1980, including anti-Vietnam War and Women’s Lib demonstrations, the Munich Olympics, the silicon chip, streaking, Nixon’s resignation, Carter’s inauguration, Elvis’ death, Three Mile Island, the gas shortage, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran hostage predicament, and Carter’s “official” announcement that the U.S. is suffering a “crisis of confidence.”
At this point, the film cuts to its present, as Brooks is interviewing with the suits seeking a triumphant Olympic team. After wining three national titles for the University of Minnesota, he’s definitely full of confidence, coming with a strategy for developing “team chemistry,” an idea of how to take on the unbeatable Soviet team (which had dominated the sport for some years), and a wife, Patti (Patricia Clarkson), willing to handle all his domestic background (they have two kids, who barely appear in the film), so that he can get the job done.
He also comes with conspicuous personal baggage, as he was cut from the U.S. national team as a player in 1960. His 1980 squad challenged him I their own ways: the last amateur team before professional dream teams could be assembled, they were college players used to competing against one another, giving up seven months of their young lives to chase an impossible-seeming dream, but not initially willing to give up the cockiness that made them individual stars.
While the sundry tensions among players and, especially, between players and coach, provide a modicum of drama, none is pursued to the point of detail. The kids — variously rugged, shaggy-haired, and outfitted in pads and helmets — form a team that tends to obscure their individuality, but that is, to a point, the source of their greatness. No Sharpies, cell phones, or outrageous salaries here, just sincere commitment to the U.S. of A. That said, a few exceptions raise up, briefly, including goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), whose family tragedy underscores his own noble determination, as well as captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Demsey), whose declaration of his dedication to the “United States of America” (as opposed to his alma mater) secures the team’s earnest resolve to beat the Russians.
Following its first four or five minutes, when Brooks is interviewed, the film — directed by Gavin O’Connor and produced by the team who brought you The Rookie — is left without much story to tell. At least, once the outline is established, the end is known, for even if you’re not familiar with this particular bit of U.S. history, the title, borrowed from the “Miracle on Ice” and sportscaster Al Michaels’ exclamation at the time (“Do you believe in miracles?!”), pretty much gives away what’s going to happen.
And so Miracle is left with montages and blandly big music from Mark Isham: Brooks selects the team and drills the team, the team plays, the team rides buses and eats pizza, the team bonds, the team goes to Lake Placid, where Brooks delivers a rousing “This is your time” speech.
Amid all this upright formula (courtesy screenwriter Eric Guggenheim), the film also reveals a little bit about Brooks’ obsessive focus, perhaps most vividly rendered as he’s watching 8mm film of prospective players at home. Patti tries to have a conversation with him, something to do with daily family subsistence, and he can’t deal with it. They fight, she retreats to the bedroom, he watches more film, the image of a teeny, anonymous black and white hockey player reflected in his glasses as the camera closes on his wholly absorbed face. To be fair, he does apologize to the wife, but only enough to let her know, again, that he “needs this,” and that she’ll just have to ride it out. Amen for supportive wives.
Also amen for supportive, if occasionally skeptical, assistant coaches, here embodied by Craig Patrick (the completely reliable Noah Emmerich). When Brooks goes hard at “the boys,” drilling them into wee hours or making them angry at his various demands, Patrick is not only available to raise a question to the coach, but also to narrate for you, in case you’ve somehow missed the point that when Brooks makes the kids mad at him, they won’t have time to be mad at each other. The point, Patrick knows, is that Brooks is pushing his players to excellence, because, as the coach reminds everyone, “Common men go nowhere.” By contrast, winners write history.