Sunday, November 20, 2011

Miracle Movie Review: A Defining Sports Moment on the Big Screen

You may ask yourself what inspired me to revisit a not entirely memorable, though worth seeing at the time, sports movie about a great sports moment from 31 years ago. It was actually seeing Warrior several weeks ago. Both films are directed by Gavin O’Connor and I was curious to see how his nearly excellent sports film from this year compares to one from 7 years ago.

It is perhaps the greatest moment in the history of sports. It at least makes the top five. The United States Olympic Men’s Hockey team did the unfathomable by defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. There is hardly a more galvanizing moment in American sports history than that one, as 20 college-age amateur hockey players took to the ice and brought down the behemoths, those mythical beasts of the USSR who were regarded as the best hockey team in the world by far and had won the gold in the previous four Olympic games. What most people forget or treat as an afterthought just as Gavin O’Connor’s 2004 film Miracle does is that the US had to play and win a game against Finland to take the gold medal. Beating the Soviets was a great moment, but it would have fallen into the recesses of bittersweet memories of almost-made-its had our boys not won that next game.

Quite often great sports moments are about much more than the contest itself. Tiger Woods winning the Master’s at age 21 was made more significant by the fact that a man with his skin color achieved the feat in a club that didn’t allow blacks in until 1990. I recently wrote about how my enjoyment of the 2001 MLB playoffs was augmented by the events of 9/11. Without the memory of that tragic day seared into my consciousness, I would have paid little attention to the Yankees that year. So it is with the so called “Miracle on Ice,” a sporting event pitting the two great Cold War adversaries against one another. Not only that, but world events were conspiring to bring America to its knees for the first time in its long and storied history.

Miracle begins with a montage of audio and still photo clips presenting a decade of American history: Vietnam protesters; Watergate; the resignation of President Nixon; a gas crisis. The recollection of these events during the opening credits serves to establish the national mood at the end of the decade. Later in the film a heartfelt speech by President Carter to allay Americans’ fears and news items including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iranian students storming the American embassy in Tehran, taking hostages, are used as punctuation marks to accentuate the events on screen. Several years ago an HBO documentary about the “Miracle on Ice” perhaps ascribed a little more significance to these events than was necessary in an attempt to turn a great hockey match into something more. The film appears to take its cue partially from that documentary.

In most sports movies, it’s not about whether the team wins or loses. It’s the journey that matters or in some cases the character arc of a player or coach. Maybe that’s why Eric Guggenheim, who wrote the screenplay, decided to make winning the gold a single-minded personal endeavor for coach Herb Brooks. In real life Brooks was the last person cut from the squad before the US Men’s team won gold in 1960. A little too much is made of that incident as a defining moment, trying to provide a pat and unconvincing motivation to the character.

As far as the sports contest goes, in Miracle we already know the outcome. By all accounts, the film should contain little drama when it comes to the actual sporting events, but surprisingly O’Connor is somehow able to milk it. His game “footage” was recreated with painstaking attention to detail, starting with the casting of the twenty young men who make up the team. For the most part, they were all hockey players who not only had a natural talent for acting, but in most cases bear a physical resemblance to the real-life players they’re portraying. As for the recreation of the games, O’Connor went back to the original tapes and had plays drawn up. His players learned the moves and they shot it all as if it were the real thing. From a technical standpoint this is remarkable not only for getting those details right, but then they had to put camera men out there on the ice with the players. The game sequences are expertly shot with cuts from the point of view of the TV cameras to on-ice cameras that capture the gritty action up close and with fluidity. O’Connor even had Al Michaels and Ken Dryden re-record their play-by-play, although he spliced in Michaels’ original “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!!!” call that he made in the final seconds of the game against the USSR.

Guggenheim builds the drama through the characters, beginning with coach Brooks (Kurt Russell) and his unbending will to coach the team his way. The players may hate him for it, but they respect him. His wife Patti (Patricia Clarkson), however, feels left out of the decision to take a year off from life to pursue his goal. Clarkson is a gifted actress who can make the most out of an unnecessary subplot littered with hokum. Such is the nature of working for Disney studios. Unfortunately, Guggenheim litters his story with the occasional embarrassingly cheesy moments as when Brooks works the team to a pulp after they exhibit lack of concentration in an exhibition game and their exhaustion culminates in the team captain finally exclaiming (for the first time) that he plays for “The United States of America!” And if you think that one is bad, there’s a worse one around the corner after Brooks brings in a wringer late in the training and only a couple weeks before the Games only to face down the team leaders who tell him it’s wrong because they’re “a family.” Ugh, can’t this studio release anything without that kind of thick syrup running all over it?

Still, the sappy moments don’t completely detract from an otherwise well-crafted sports movie. Yes, this is ultimately the kind of movie where supporting players like Noah Emmerich as assistant coach Craig Patrick and Kenneth Walsh as the team doctor are nondescript without a whole lot being asked of them in terms of performance (Clarkson is the exception, who elevates every movie she’s in). In spite of its lukewarm presentation, it fills the job of inspirational cinema without asking for too much commitment from its viewers.

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