September 20, 2003
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Sean McCann, Kenneth Welsh, Eddie Cahill, Patrick O’Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West, Kenneth Mitchell, Eric Peter-Kaiser, ,
In 1980, the U.S. Olympic hockey team achieved what many, at the time, thought impossible. They beat the seemingly invincible Soviet hockey team and went on to capture the Gold Medal. Miracle (2004) attempts to recreate those incredible times and the months leading up to it as coach Herb Brooks (Russell) transforms a group of inexperienced kids with raw talent into a winning team.
In 1979, the Amateur Hockey Association brought in the legendary Brooks to coach the American Olympic hockey team for next year’s games in Lake Placid. Brooks wanted to change the way the Olympic team was trained and how they played. He incorporated a radical new hybrid style that combined Soviet and Canadian styles of hockey. Brooks had only seven months to get a team together and whip them into shape in time for the Olympic Games.
Right from the get-go, he lays it on the line to the potential players: he is not going to be their friend, he is their coach. Brooks was a maverick. He picked his team without consulting the AHA (a big no-no at the time) and wasn’t afraid to make enemies so long as it was for the good of the team. This also included his own players.
After a particularly lackluster effort in a game against Norway, Brooks keeps his team behind and runs them through a grueling set of skating drills as the audience files out. He has them do it again and again…and again until they are physically and emotionally exhausted. At first, it seems that Brooks is just a cruel taskmaster but the longer this sequence plays out, a method to his madness begins to emerge. He’s not just punishing his players for a half-assed effort, he is also conditioning them, toughening them up if they are to be in the shape required to stay with and even beat the Russians.
The underrated Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Brooks. He refuses to romanticize the man and plays him as gruff and no-nonsense. He is intensely driven and dedicated to the game of hockey. He’s uncompromising but for a purpose. His rigorous work ethic produces results. Brooks knows when to push his players and when to step in and give them guidance. Russell disappears physically into his character with that awful late ‘70s-early ‘80s look complete with tacky suits and helmet hair-do (it is almost as if he’s channeling his undercover look from Big Trouble in Little China).
Russell also does a fantastic job conveying the inner turmoil Brooks faced at the time. He was torn between his dedication to the game and his love for his family. Russell has always been a very physical actor and shows a real range in this role. There is a scene where he has to tell an injured player that he won’t be healthy in time for the tournament and that he’s off the team. Very little dialogue is spoken. Instead, the camera focuses on their faces: Russell is sad and remorseful, the player looks worried, then upset—the anguish washing over him as he realizes what has happened. This is a powerful scene that could have so easily been ruined with sappy, emotionally manipulative music or cliché dialogue.
Also crucial to the film are its hockey sequences, which are exciting and tense—even if you know the outcome. Director Gavin O’Connor and cinematographer Daniel Stoloff do a great job of capturing the visceral impact of playing high intensity hockey with hand-held camerawork. There is lots of point-of-view footage right on the rink that puts the audience right in there with the players. O’Connor and his editor John Gilroy use quick edits and snap zooms to successfully simulate the rush of the game.
The first disc features “The Making of Miracle,” a look at how accurate the film was to the real thing. Vintage footage of the original team practicing and the pivotal game vs. the Soviets is juxtaposed against the staged footage for the movie. It is amazing at how close they were able to recreate it, play-for-play. The filmmakers wisely cast actual hockey players and then taught them how to act.
There is also an audio commentary with director Gavin O’Connor, director of photography Daniel Stoloff and editor, John Gilroy. The original opening credits dramatized Brooks getting cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team the year they went on to win the Gold medal. While this provided more backstory and motivation for what Brook does in the film, O’Connor says that he wanted this to be more in the background. He also mentions that they saw over 4,000 guys for the team of 21 players. This is a very informative track with lots of interesting factoids and anecdotes.
The second DVD starts off with the featurette, “From Hockey to Hollywood: Actors’ Journey.” The guys who made the final team talk about how they were cast and the high level of skill they had to have even to make it to the audition stage.
“Miracle ESPN Roundtable with Linda Cohn” is a discussion with Kurt Russell and original players Mike Eruzione, Buzz Schneider and Jim Craig. Russell talks about the time he spent with Brooks in preparing for the role and all three men shed light on what he was like on and off the ice. This is a very interesting extra as we get to hear about what it was like to work with Brooks from his actual teammates.
“The Sound of Miracle” examines the film’s sound design and all the work that went into realistically recreating the experience of playing a game of hockey.
“First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers” is raw footage of pre-production meetings between the legendary coach and the filmmakers. He discusses his philosophy of the game and his working methods. Brooks also tells all sorts of great stories; including the heartbreaking moment when he found out he was cut from the 1960 team. He was the kind of guy who could really tell a story and someone you could listen to for hours.
Finally, there is an outtakes reel that is pretty funny as the cast of novice actors repeatedly blow their lines.
Tragically, Herb Brooks died shortly before Miracle was completed. The final product is certainly a fitting tribute to his legacy. Its style and approach reflects that of Brooks himself: meat and potatoes filmmaking. Even though commercials for the movie emphasized the patriotism angle, the film, thankfully, downplays this for the most part. Miracle is certainly a long way from the cheesy hockey melodrama of Youngblood (1986) and much more worthy of the legacy of the legendary Slap Shot (1977).