Believe in ‘Miracles’ — Kurt Russell is good!

Kyle Smith

For all of our emphasis on materialism, individualism and equal opportunity, Americans worship competitive sports. And the most popular sports are team athletics, involving cooperation, a temporary loss of individual identity and, at non-professional levels, virtually no reward.

The new Disney film “Miracle” aggressively asserts this idea of athletic communism. For a film celebrating a Cold War triumph for democracy, “Miracle” feels almost subversive in undermining sports film norms.

Perhaps it has to do with the ending. Of course, the underdog Americans beat the legendary Soviet hockey team in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. But, unlike in most fictional sports movies, the game wasn’t won on last-second heroics. The Americans took the lead with 10 minutes left in the final period and held on for a rather anti-climactic win.

Just as surprising as “Miracle’s” twist on the sports film is Kurt Russell’s career-defining role as U.S. coach Herb Brooks. With strikingly few changes to his physical appearance — squinted eyes, a lengthened jaw and a stilted gait — Russell erases his Snake Plissken persona and disappears into Brooks. He’s also uncharacteristically good, conveying Brooks’ frustration at shaping his untalented players into a selfless team of winners.

However, Russell is lucky — although “Miracle” runs for over two hours, many major characters are left undeveloped. Current Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson stars as Brooks’ wife Patti, a terribly two-dimensional role that underuses Clarkson’s talent for complementing other characters. She mopes around Russell, trying to reveal the domestic toll coaching took on the man, but comes off as whiny and insignificant. There’s also the regrettable relationship between goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and his father, which is presented with the subtlety of a Blink-182 video.

Perhaps some of these problems are due to “Miracle’s” unique authenticity. The actors portraying the Olympic team are mainly amateur hockey players acting for the first time; however, their prowess on the ice punctuates “Miracle’s” terrifically staged hockey scenes.

There’s also a historical undercurrent installed into “Miracle,” but it’s not as obvious as your typical homogenized Disney product would lead you to believe. The history isn’t so much about the Cold War but rather dilapidated American pride in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis, gas scares and high interest rates.

And even with this examination of ebbing nationalism, the film never becomes flag-waving propaganda. First and foremost, “Miracle” is about the team. Even a cringe-inducing scene in the trailer where a player desperately exclaims, “I play for the United States of America!” is a moment of team unity rather than national esteem.

Brooks’ entire philosophy for success is that his team must beat the Russians at their own game — maximizing a system of teamwork and equality. It is Communism at its finest. The movie’s only flash of jingoism comes during the climactic game against the Russians, where the crowd (obviously extras poorly outfitted in modern clothing) begins to cheer for their nameless warriors.

That final game is fantastic. Using Al Michaels’ immortal commentary (“Do you believe in miracles?”) along with dynamic camerawork on the ice and coherent editing, the movie slows hockey down without insulting it. And even though we know how it ends, there’s still that rare tingling surge that blasts through your body when the players rush onto the ice. Those who have seen the ABC-televised “Miracle on Ice” game in its entirety will find that the finale of “Miracle” holds its own against that thrilling image of 20 kids stumbling on skates, too overjoyed to know how to celebrate.

‘Miracle’: B+

Communication sophomore Kyle Smith is film editor for PLAY. He can be reached at [email protected]

Classic hockey movies

>The Game That Kills (1937): Ward Bond is killed in a freak hockey “accident.” His brother investigates, uncovers an underground gambling ring and falls in love with Rita Hayworth.

>Slap Shot (1977): The crown jewel of hockey films. The combination of Paul Newman and the hard-hitting Hanson brothers make this one of the best comedy-dramas of the 1970s.

>The Mighty Ducks (1992): The only movie to ever create a spin-off in the form of a professional hockey team. Emilio Estevez, we salute you. But why weren’t you the coach in “D3?”

>Sudden Death (1995): Jean-Claude Van Damme must force a Blackhawks game into overtime so baddie Powers Boothe won’t blow it up. Current Chicago fans can only dream.