"Miracle" tells the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that upset the Soviet Union in the medal round and went on to win the gold with a victory against Finland. How big of an upset was it? The Soviets had won the gold in hockey every Olympics since 1956 save one, the year that the U.S. beat them in Squaw Valley in 1960. During the months before the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid the Soviets amassed a 42-0 record, which included a 6-0 drubbing of an NHL All-Star team and an exhibition 10-3 rout of the U.S. Olympic squad just three days before Olympic competition began. The Soviets were considered the best hockey team in the world, and that included professionals--which many thought the Soviets were, since they were considered on active duty in the Red Army and paid to train and play hockey. To beat them was as impossible as sports dreams get.
But there was another dimension to the victory. The Berlin Wall wouldn't come down until 1989, and the Soviet Union and United States were still Cold War adversaries in a bi-polar world. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, and President Jimmy Carter was considering boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow as a protest--something he would eventually do. But a hostage crisis in Iran and other events made for low morale, and the winter Olympics in Lake Placid gave Americans a chance to hope again.
More feet of film (over 280 miles) were shot than with any other Disney production, and the 20 actors who were chosen to play teammates were selected on the basis of their hockey talent, not their acting skills. The result is a movie that has you wondering, at times, whether the whole thing is recreated or whether the filmmakers inserted stock footage from the big games, the way that the 1981 made-for-TV "Miracle on Ice" did. That's quite a compliment, if you think about it. And Kurt Russell does a fine job of playing the tough, my-way-or-the-highway Coach Herb Brooks, who was a controversial figure up until the time that he engineered what is still one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
Director Gavin O'Connor chose to make Brooks the focus, and that was smart. It was Brooks who had to audacity to think that the Americans could put together a team that could train hard and beat the Soviets at their own game, Brooks who hand-picked his squad while previously chosen teams were by committee, and Brooks who drilled them like an Army sergeant to be the best that they could be. The film is dedicated to Brooks, who died in a car accident before the movie was released.
Except for when he smiles and the boyish Kurt Russell shines through, Russell does a good job of playing the all-business Brooks, and he even pulls off the same fashion faux passes mixing plaid pants with a different patterned tie and sportcoat. Patricia Clarkson does an awful lot with a tiny role as Brooks' wife, Patty, and Noah Emmerich and Kenneth Welsh are equally convincing as Brooks' assistant coaches. For a bunch of first-time actors, the group of hockey talents assembled for this picture also do a good job of making us believe them and their movie situation. In a film like this it's almost a cliché that the first two-thirds will focus on team-building--the kind of training that turns ordinary humans into extraordinary champions, and the kind of bonding that makes it all emotionally possible. That happens here, too, and while it may be obligatory for sports films these sequences are as engaging as the game recreations. It's "Hoosiers" with skates and a cast of unknowns who make it work: Eddie Cahill, Patrick O'Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West, Kenneth Mitchell, Eric Peter-Kaiser, Bobby Hanson, Joseph Cure, Billy Schneider (who plays his 1980 team member father, Buzz), Nate Miller, Chris Koch, Kris Wilson, Steve Kovalcik, Sam Skoryna, Pete Duffy, Nick Postle, Casey Burnette, Scott Johnson, Trevor Alto, Robbie MacGregor, Joe Hemsworth, and Adam Knight.
With a subject like this, it would have been easy to skate off into excessive patriotism or emotion for it's own sake, but first-time writer Eric Guggenheim crafts a screenplay that tosses in humor or eccentricity at just the right moment to take the edge off impending melodrama. For a sports film where everyone knows the outcome, "Miracle" does a fine job of creating and sustaining tension, all the way through the big game with the Soviets. "Rocky IV" was a little hokey in its Cold War face-off, but director O'Connor pulls off this "Miracle" in fine fashion.
"Miracle" comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and even in scenes when the action is furious there's a consistent level of detail. Some scenes are softer than others, but they also tend to be thematically softer, and so I have to guess that it was deliberate. Overall, skin tones are perfectly natural, colors are three-quarters to fully saturated, and even soft-focus backgrounds are free of noise. Some of the edges actually could have benefited from the kind of enhancement that purists usually balk over, but it's a nice-looking film on Blu-ray. Even the scene at the rink where Brooks makes his players drill in the dark has nice delineation. "Miracle" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and it's head-and-shoulders above the DVD in terms of visual quality.
The audio is even better. The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, and as with the other sport movie just released on Blu-ray ("The Greatest Game Ever Played") it's a good one, with strong and resonant bass, good crisp mid-tones, and highs that aren't too tinny. There's a nice spread across the speakers, too, so that the room fills with sound rather than hanging around speakers like clouds on mountaintops. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
For commentary lovers there's a decent one featuring the director, his cinematographer (Dan Stoloff), and his editor (John Gilroy). The trio covers the usual bases of casting, pre-production, production, and post-production, with the emphasis on problems and solutions.
The longest bonus feature is a roughly 40-minute ESPN Roundtable on which Kurt Russell and real-life Olympians Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, and Buzz Schneider talk about the Miracle on Ice, the team, their coach, and this film. It has the feel of a pre-release publicity tour, but the combination of Russell and real players makes for an interesting roundtable. Then there's "From Hockey to Hollywood," a roughly half-hour making-of feature that tells the basics of how the film was cast and what strategies the director employed to create a film that felt real. "The Making of Miracle" is a shorter making-of feature that runs just under 20 minutes and gets more technical, explaining how the action shots were filmed, among other things. Then there's a fascinating (but poignant, given Brooks' untimely death in a car accident) that shows the former coach sitting down with the filmmakers and talking hockey. The final features are a roughly 10-minute bit on the sound design and five minutes worth of outtakes and bloopers.
All of the bonus features are in 480p standard definition, with English 2.0 Dolby Digital audio and English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Sports films are getting to be a pretty expansive genre, and I'd have to say that "Miracle" is a solid entry, with a rousing story and a feel-good ending that will have you looking for a flag to wave. Russell is at his understated best in the film, which stands as a living tribute to Coach Herb Brooks. And the recreated action sequences are as exciting as the original, history-making game.