The challenge of making a movie when everyone knows the ending must be daunting for screenwriter and director alike. They have to tell the story that lies hidden and undiscovered under the one we all think we know.
Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim are successful in this regard for showing how the U.S. hockey team beat the Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., with the opposite of what could and has been referred to as a miracle. It wasn’t their boyish All-American aw-shucks goodness that turned this game into one of the most memorable moments in sporting and political history. It was facing down and beating a Russian machine using the same strategies the Russians had been using to destroy every other team since 1960. The difference in 1980 is that the U.S. team finally gave free rein to the one man who knew how to do it, University of Minnesota hockey coach Herb Brooks (played with macho, stony-eyed intensity by Kurt Russell). The film’s exploration of Brooks’ psychological, and at times pathological, approach to grabbing one of amateur sports’ most elusive rings will be required viewing for young athletes for years to come. It wasn’t a miracle that the United States beat the Russians. It was the focused and unyielding discipline of one man showing 20 other men how it could and would be done.
America in the ’70s was the very picture of malaise and apathy. We were getting used to getting beat down. Vietnam, Watergate, skyrocketing inflation and the subsequent distribution of W.I.N. (Whip Inflation Now) buttons by then-President Gerald Ford, the oil crisis, Americans getting taken hostage by pissed-off Iranians, “Three’s Company.” The Cold War still raged, and it got even colder when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. By 1980 this was our world, shown to us in Miracle by a jam-packed montage as the opening credits roll.
To its credit, the film spends most of its time examining what Brooks had to change about our Olympic team. Jaws had dropped when he picked not top players, but the “right” players. Corny? Yes. Hey, it’s a come-from-behind Cinderella story and Brooksinian aphorisms abound.
From the grueling physical drills that Brooks tortures his team with, to the brilliant mind-games he employs to keep them in line, to the player-level camera vistas during the final, famous game, Miracle does a good job of keeping the story rolling without a lot of schmaltz and sugar. It saves that for the end, but it’s a well-earned sweetness.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].