Sunday, February 22, 2004

A Minor Cinematic Miracle

The 70s were a dark time for the US. The economy was in shambles. Gas was scarce. We didn't trust our politicians. We had no heroes.
Then, in 1980, something fantastic happened. A bunch of kids no one knew beat the best hockey team on earth on their way to winning Olympic Gold. The victory was a watershed moment for American culture. It meant we could believe again. I remember being nine and watching those games and just being amazed each time the US team came from behind to pull out a victory. I remember being on the edge of my seat during the USA/USSR match...transfixed by a sporting event that not only transcended the sport, but also transcended international relations.

Miracle tells the story of how coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) brought a disparate group of college players together and forged them into a team that managed to beat the best in the world when it counted. In spite of being a "rah-rah" patriotic spite of it being a Walt Disney Studios spite of the fact that it sounds like every sports cliche ever put to spite of works.

In less capable hands...this movie would have been crummy TV Movie of the Week material. Gavin O'Connor might not be up for an Oscar next year, but a steady workman director is better than a clumsy wannabe auteur any day. His technique shines when the games get going and the camera gets right into the action.

Russell, of course, is fantastic. Most people only think of him as an action star, but he's been one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood since the early 70s. Noah Emmerich shines in the role of Brooks' able assistant coach, Craig Patrick. But, the real standouts are the handful of unknowns who portray the team. Aside from Eddie Cahill, the team is made up of hockey players, not professional actors.

This works for two reasons. One, the hockey looks believable. They didn't have to train the actors to play hockey. They had the simpler task of making hockey players act. Admittedly, this ain't Shakespeare, but these guys put some decent performances in for being essentially untrained. Patrick O'Brien Demsey as Mike Eruzione and Michael Mantenuto as Jack O'Callahan anchor the cast without prior film credits. Eddie Cahill's Jim Craig is likewise excellent, though it's too early to say that any of them will have a future in the acting profession.
Two, the cameraderie of a team sport isn't something new to these guys. They've been on hockey teams and knew what it was like. They have experience in the sporting world, which is a hell of a lot better than an actor following a hockey team around for two weeks. They have all the tools necessary to portray hockey players, because they are hockey players.

Production-wise, the movie is at its best on the ice, whether it be practice or an actual game. Mark Isham's score ratchets up, sounding more like an action movie than a sporting event. Even though I knew the outcome, even though I watched the games 24 years ago, I was still on the edge of my seat during the game scenes, and I think the music had a good bit to do with that. The cinematography by Dan Stoloff and editing by John Gilroy manage to follow the action of a high-speed sport without looking like TV coverage, and then balance the quiet moments with a less frenetic style.

Miracle isn't earth-shattering. Hell, I'd bet it's not the feel good movie of the year. But, it's a damn fine movie about hockey, and it's a damn fine movie about an event that was important to me when I was but a wee film fan. If you haven't seen it yet, go. If you have, go again. Miracle's a winner.

Official Site
Super Bowl Spot
Making Of
Behind the Scenes
First Look
Premiere Footage

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