Today on The DisInsider, we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in not only the history of sports but also the history of the entire United States. On February 22nd, 1980, the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team played against the Soviet Union Men’s Hockey Team at the 13th Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. At the time, the Soviet Union squad was one of the most dominant forces in Olympic history and had taken the Gold Medal in 5 of the last 6 Olympic Games. But against all odds, coach Herb Brooks’ squad of amateur/college players pulled off the impossible and defeated the supposedly unbeatable Russians 4-3 on route to a historic Gold Medal run. This moment in history would forever become known as the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and provided a jolt of national pride that America was arguably quite lacking at the time. But now this brings us to the 2004 film adaptation of this historic event, simply titled Miracle. Released by Disney and directed by Gavin O’Connor, the film was a solid success both critically and commercially upon its release. It grossed over $64 million worldwide and scored good reviews with critics, and even nowadays, I find that many people still regard this as one of the best sports films of all-time. Unlike the actual Miracle on Ice, 2020 doesn’t connect to any specific anniversary for this film, but it did celebrate its 15th anniversary last year. Thus, I figured that now is the perfect time to celebrate an undisputed classic of the sports film genre; a film that flawlessly works around its genre’s predictability to perfectly capture the spirit and emotion of the legendary game that it’s based around.
In the summer of 1969, University of Minnesota Ice Hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) is hired as the new head coach of the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team. Brooks, who had previously played on the 1960 squad but was cut right before their Gold Medal run at the Olympics that year, proposes that the only way they can defeat the unstoppable force that is the Soviet Union’s hockey team is by changing their strategies and the ways that they practice. However, Brooks’ radical ideas are initially met with skepticism by the members of the United States Olympic Committee, especially after he ends up selecting the initial 26-man roster on the first day of what was meant to be a week-long tryout session. Nevertheless, Brooks sticks to his guns and selects a team made up of amateur and college players, including players from Boston University and several who had previously played for Brooks at the University of Minnesota. The only problem, however, is that Boston and Minnesota are responsible for one of the fiercest rivalries in college hockey, and sure enough, that hostility starts to become an issue once the team gets on the ice. However, Brooks manages to work around this by implementing a strict training regime that pushes the players to their limits so that he can properly instill in them the values of playing hockey for the United States of America. And in the process, the team starts to come together as they head to Lake Placid, where they find themselves becoming the catalysts behind a newfound sense of national pride as they brace themselves for the inevitable battle with the Soviets.
As I alluded to in the intro, sports films can often get dinged for having predictable plots that usually revolve around a team that’s established as being major underdogs but end up winning the most important game of the season against their biggest rivals. This is especially the case for films that are based on true stories since there’s a very likely chance that audiences are well-aware of the history of events that they’re based on going into them. But while Miracle is quite arguably one of the most blatant examples of the latter since, let’s face it, we all know what happened on that fateful February day 40 years ago, this never hurts the film in any significant manner. A lot of this is thanks to how director Gavin O’Connor perfectly conveys the tumultuous atmosphere of everything that was going on in America at the time without ever shifting focus away from Herb Brooks and his team. Whether it’s the opening credits montage that covers events like the Three Mile Island incident and Watergate or a sequence where Herb’s wife Patti (Patricia Clarkson) diverts his attention to news on the developing hostage crisis in Iran, the film never shies away from how American morale was arguably at an all-time low. But just like in real life, the film does a wonderful job of building up to the climactic game against the Soviets and showing just how big of a deal it ended up being for the U.S. In fact, the attention to detail when it came to recreating this game is so authentic that legendary sportscaster Al Michaels didn’t even bother to re-record his iconic final words from the original broadcast (“DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? YES!”). Why? Well, it was quite simply because he knew that he couldn’t even remotely come close to replicating the pure, unbridled emotion of that moment.
But, of course, the best aspect of this entire film is Kurt Russell’s phenomenal lead performance in the role of Herb Brooks. Russell fully commands the screen as the legendary hockey coach who pushed his team 24/7 to be the best that they can be. And yet, as much as the film focuses on the instances where he dishes out tough love to them like no one’s business, it also makes an effort to emphasize his humanity amidst all the pressure that he was clearly under to lead his team to victory. Much of this comes through in the scenes that he shares with Patricia Clarkson as Herb’s wife Patti who, despite her admittedly limited role as the generally passive ‘supporting wife’, does get to have a few instances where she keeps her husband in line when he starts to become too focused on his coaching responsibilities. After that, they’re backed by solid supporting players like Gavin O’Connor regular Noah Emmerich as Herb’s assistant coach Craig Patrick and Sean McCann as Walter Bush, the team’s general manager who also serves as Herb’s liaison when it comes to defending his actions to the U.S. Olympic Committee. As for the 20 men who made up the 1980 U.S. Men’s Hockey Team, the filmmakers primarily relied on casting actual hockey players in the roles. And while the film does tend to focus on some players more than others (namely, the quartet of goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), team captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Dempsey), defenseman Jack O’Callahan (Michael Mantenuto), and forward Rob McClanahan (Nathan West)), their overall camaraderie is outstanding.
I still remember going to see this film in theaters back in 2004 when my family and I were on vacation in New Hampshire. I also remember a time in 2008 when, due to various reasons that range from having to do a school project on the ‘Miracle on Ice’ to just casually watching it at home on DVD, I ended up re-watching this film at least 3 or 4 times in the span of a month. In other words, just like another classic Disney sports film of the era, 2000’s Remember the Titans, Miracle is a film that I have quite a lot of history with, and upon re-watching it for this review, it’s easy to see why. Sure, it can be just as predictable as other films in the sports genre from a story perspective, but to be fair, this is the ‘Miracle on Ice’ we’re talking about. Thus, in this instance, it’s not a big deal that you already know the outcome of the film going into it because that’s not the point of it all. Instead, Miracle succeeds immensely thanks to excellent direction from Gavin O’Connor that perfectly conveys the historical importance of this legendary game and an unforgettable performance from Kurt Russell in the lead role of head coach Herb Brooks. I may not have been alive to witness the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in person, but this film more than does its job when it comes to authentically recreating such a spectacle on the big screen. And really, it doesn’t matter how many times you re-watch the actual game itself or this film’s interpretation of it as the climactic medal round matchup between the United States and the Soviet Union still stands as one of the most exhilarating finales in the history of sports films.