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Almost made me care about hockey
on 29 December 2005
People my age probably remember where they were when John and Bobbie Kennedy were shot, when Armstrong stepped onto the moon, when the Challenger blew up, when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps even when the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the unbeatable Soviets in 1980. And I don't even care for hockey that much.
MIRACLE is the story of that legendary upset, and the grueling training that led up to that glorious moment, told from the perspective of the coach, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). A member of the 1960 Olympic squad, Brooks was cut from the team a week before its first Olympic match and subsequent gold medal victory. After that, the USSR Olympians dominated the sport for the next twenty years. Through his "boys", Brooks sought personal redemption and an end to Soviet hegemony.
The first film of 2003 of Oscar caliber was SEABISCUIT, the story of an earlier underdog. MIRACLE was perhaps the first 2004 release deserving Oscar consideration. Not for Best Picture, but for Russell as Best Actor (though I didn't believe for a moment that was the actor's real hair).
MIRACLE is about Coach Brooks. While the young actors that portray the twenty-some players do a creditable job, they're all pretty much lost against the background of team identity. And that's as it should be because their amazing victory was, and necessarily had to be, a team effort. This point is effectively made for the audience during a tortuous set of punishment drills after a poorly played match against the Swedish national team when one of Herb's players finally correctly answers the question he constantly poses, "Who do you play for?" It's a moment of revelation for all concerned.
Just as the horse race action in SEABISCUIT almost made me go down to the track and squander the mortgage payment on a first-ever bet, MIRACLE's camera work on the ice almost morphed me into a rabid hockey puck. You, the viewer, are right there in the thick of the furious melee expecting to be slammed against the boards or slashed with a stick at any moment. There's an adrenaline rush not felt with, say, curling.
At the film's end, a voiceover by Russell-Brooks reminds us that, soon after the 1980 Gold Medal upset, America's Olympic hockey team was opened to pro players of the National Hockey League to thus create the "Dream Team" concept - but no Olympic squad since then has ever captured "the dream". Honor is due Brooks and his amateurs.