"Miracle" is what American filmmakers do best.
"Seabiscuit" on ice? "Miracle" is what American filmmakers do best: a rousing true tale of an underdog overcoming insurmountable odds to win the prize. Director Gavin O'Connor's dramatization of the 1980 USA Winter Olympic team's victory over Russia's juggernaut champions for 15 years is even more exuberant than the horse race because the team represented the renewal of American spirit in times gloomy in the recounting. "Mighty Ducks" this is not.
"Seabiscuit's" depression era salvaging spirit seems a bit tame next to Iranian hostage takers, empty gas pumps, post Watergate, and Viet Nam, a few of the dark events that left President Jimmy Carter few options other than to scold the American people for indolence and apathy. The opening titles' montage of period footage is the best I have seen to establish an era whose hopes and fears were crystallized in this new team of very young players. Make no mistake about it; the film's focus is the US victory over the USSR, so much so that the final victory for the Olympic gold over Finland is but a footnote.
USA veteran hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) knows it's not just a game, as his enduring wife (Patricia Clarkson) reminds him in the hours when he is most absorbed in game films and firings and neglecting his family. In fact, "Miracle" is about this remarkable coach's vision that only the most grueling practice will prepare them for the best team in the world. He purposely at one point verbally beats them up, walks out of the room, and says to his assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich), "That ought to wake them up." His assistant coach, team doctor, and board overseers do not agree with his aloof tactics but are mute at the final victory when the announcer remarks about the team's stunning stamina.
The Americans' average age was 21; some of the USSR's players had been on the ice together for 15 years. Intimidation was the key Russian strategy (as well as some of the best players in the world). This grim group probably couldn't remember when it was last defeated (early '60's?). But the Americans prevailed in a victory the director makes immediate and visceral with Steadicam, close up, and swelling music.
The film lacks the ability to tell exactly why the USA won, besides the painful preparation, because the Russians remain faceless, only the coach briefly featured as a lean Brezhnev with beetle eye brows and nary a smile from him or his team. At a point in the game when the Americans surge ahead, Brooks remarks that the coach didn't know what to do. Darrell Royal, commenting on football coaches, gives an insight into Herb Brooks' success: "A head coach is guided by this main objective: dig, claw, wheedle, coax that fanatical effort out of players."
Wish we knew more about that elusive success, but this we do know: Herb Brooks was responsible for putting together the finest group of young hockey players in American history, training them to the point of retching and fainting, suffering from a lack of faith around him, and delivering gold worth more to a nation than all the jewels of a monarchy.