"Eleven seconds, you got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now...five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
- Al Michaels, sportscaster for ABC Television, as time expired in the medal round ice hockey game between USA and USSR, uttering the famous phrase that earned that game the nickname "Miracle on Ice".
Australian tennis star Lleyton Hewitt has a simple but effective way to get himself pumped up for a match--he watches the movie "Rocky". Well, it may be time for Stallone to hang up his gloves and retire from the motivational business as a new kid on the block is set to dominate the ice. Make way for "Miracle", the Kurt Russell-helmed movie chronicling the emergence of a group of unlikely heroes in an epic Olympic ice hockey match that many still consider to be one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history.
Unless you are a passionate sports fan, you may find it difficult to imagine that a single game can cause such an impact back when it was played in 1980. Far from an important historical event, the "Miracle on Ice" game is more about how a nation came looking for something--anything--to bring cheer and finding twenty young men with big hearts and an unlimited passion who overcame considerable odds to succeed when they were expected to fail.
Back in 1979, in the run up to the 13th Winter Olympics Games in Lake Placid New York to be held early the following year, the world was a vastly different place that the one we live in today. Domestically in the United States, the humiliation of Vietnam was still fresh in the minds of many people, an energy crisis triggered a gas shortage causing long lines at the pumps and unemployment and inflation figures skyrocketed. The U.S. was a nation in need of resuscitation, in need of a jolt to the system. Therefore, the "Miracle on Ice" game became a symbol of the times. "Miracle" is able to put these turbulent times into a larger context by informing the audience about the harsh political climate in the months before the 1980 Winter Olympic Games with a series of news images and videos during the opening sequence, carefully setting up the environment in which the game was played in.
Not helping during that time were international incidents like the one in Iran when militants took Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Also, at the same time, the Cold War was at its peak and the world's only other superpower, the Soviet Union, was often referred to as the evil empire (Bostonians will tell you this term refers to the New York Yankees). And to top it all off, the Soviet Union's ice hockey team was the team to beat back then. They had amassed a formidable and well-earned reputation as the best and most feared hockey team in the world. Like a well-oiled machine, this Soviet team was almost invincible after they had obliterated every single opponent that they have faced, including the NHL's All-Star professional team months before the Games. It seemed that no team could touch the Soviets.
Well, not if Herb Brooks has anything to say about it. Brooks was the legendary coach of the all-amateur U.S. ice hockey team. With a single-minded drive, Brooks recruited and molded a makeshift team of former college hockey players into an awesome unit, rivaling the Soviets in terms of physical conditioning, teamwork and technique. But for all the intense training they had to endure under Brooks, the players still had to learn to believe in their own abilities. Once you start fearing your opponent, the game is as good as lost. That weakness was on full display when the U.S. team lost an exhibition match badly (10-3) to the Soviet Union just days before the Games opened.
"Miracle" is more about Herb Brooks than anything else. It is about how Brooks used his very effective method of motivation to bring out the best from his players. It is about how Brooks changed the way the North American style of hockey is coached and played (if you want to beat the Soviets, you have to play and train like them). It is about how Brooks took on the U.S. Olympic committee and got them to put faith in his style of coaching and in his selection of players. It is about how Brooks whipped the team into a single unit that can go the full three periods without losing their concentration. It is also about redemption--Brooks was the final player cut from the 1960 gold medal-winning Olympic ice hockey team and he had never won a gold medal after that. As his players like to say about him: there is a method to his madness.
When it comes to authenticity, "Miracle" is on top of the game. In a movie that showcases the exciting and fast game of ice hockey, director Gavin O'Connor chooses to cast actual hockey players that can also act rather than established actors that had to be taught the game (unfortunately, big hockey fan Denis Leary's too old for any of the roles). Not only do these guys have to look like the players that they are portraying, they have to also sound like them, with the correct Bostonian and Minnesotan accents. Oh and by the way, they have to know how to skate and play hockey as well. With such stringent casting criteria, "Miracle" is able to do the impossible--reenact the important plays of the game with as much authenticity as possible. In one of the special features included on this DVD, you can watch how some of the plays are filmed and marvel at their almost shot-by-shot equivalence with the actual game footages. To take the movie's authenticity one step further, even the hockey players portraying the Soviets are cast with the same physical and likeness criteria.
To put it modestly, the ice hockey action in this movie is the best you will ever see on any screen. Using new and innovative camera techniques, "Miracle" puts you right in the thick of the action. Cameramen who skate along dangerously close to the players lets the audience get first-hand experience on the actual speed and danger of the game.
Unfortunately, like most Hollywood movies, "Miracle" only looks at the game from one point of view--the Americans'. In wars, the victors get to write or rewrite the history books while the vanquished stay but a footnote. Similarly, in this case, the winners will trumpet their achievements while the losers try hard to forget the agony of defeat. You can be sure that Hollywood definitely won't be knocking down doors to make a movie based on the controversial 1972 Summer Olympics basketball game between, yet again, the U.S and the USSR, in which the U.S. team's unbeaten 63-game streak in the Olympics came to an unceremonious end. And you can't really blame any filmmaker for this, as audiences love a happy ending, however jingoistic it may seem.
Movies based on true stories often offer no surprises. As you already know the final outcome, there are no surprises in "Miracle". Team U.S.A. went on to win the gold medal, beating some of the world's best teams in a stunning display of teamwork, heart and skills. However, what is important here is not the conclusion but how the movie portrays its colorful characters. On top of the list is coach Herb Brooks, played brilliantly by Kurt Russell. If you watch old footage of the real Brooks side-by-side with Russell's portrayal, it is hard to discern between the both of them, even though they both don't really look alike. Russell is able to capture Brooks' mannerisms and re-project them naturally, like they are his own, embodying Brooks like no actor can. If you have never taken Kurt Russell's acting abilities seriously before, you should now.
Unfortunately, due to time constraint, only the players who are standouts are given screen time, even though there are 20 players, on a team where every single one of them play just as important a role as the next guy. You will make acquaintances with the team's captain, Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey), their outstanding goaltender Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), defender Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto), team MVP and forward Mark Johnson (Eric Peter-Kaiser), forward Rob McClanahan (Nathan West), forward Buzz Schneider (played by his son Billy Schneider) and forward Dave Silk (Bobby Hanson). Other supporting characters in this movie include the coach's supporting wife Patty Brooks (Patricia Clarkson) and assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich).
So, the game that was played on February 22nd, 1980 will forever be known in American sports lore as the "Miracle on Ice". On the surface, it looks simple enough, with twenty young men playing magnificently as a team to beat the world's best in the game of ice hockey at the prestigious Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. It is, however, much bigger than that. Amidst a darkening backdrop of world political troubles overflowing into sports--the U.S. and many other nations threatened and eventually boycotted that summer's Moscow Summer Olympics Games--that game brought the entire country together, at least for a few hours, to not only celebrate the defeat of an old foe but also to celebrate the achievements and the spirit of sportsmanship. Even though the massive build-up to the game was unimaginable, luckily it ultimately came down to a game where two skillful teams were pitted against each other without any outside interference or controversial calls.
Presented in a wide anamorphic video screen measuring 2.35:1, "Miracle" features an excellent transfer. Colors are accurately matched with deep blacks, vivid colors and natural skin tones. As expected, for such a new production, there are hardly any specks of dirt to spoil the video. Subtitle option include English for the hearing impaired.
The movie's authenticity also spills over into the audio presentation. Instead of using Foley artists to replicate the sounds from an ice hockey game, the sound engineers took the time to do all the live recording of all the sounds they needed and lay them over the action on the ice. Featuring a very dynamic English language Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, "Miracle" brings the exciting sounds of an ice hockey match to our living rooms. For example, you can hear skates swoosh from left to right while having the sound of the puck go around the back of the room through the surround channels. Also available is a French language Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
On this 2-DVD set, the special features can be found on both discs. On Disc 1, there are two extras, a documentary "The Making of Miracle" and an audio commentary by director Gavin O'Connor, film editor John Gilroy and director of photography Daniel Stoloff. In "The Making of Miracle" featurette, which runs for about 20 minutes, there is some nice behind-the-scenes footage documenting the filming of the movie. It is not very in-depth but entertaining all the same. For the audio commentary, director Gavin O'Connor guides most of the conversation. As the man behind the vision for "Miracle", O'Connor is very knowledgeable about almost all of the aspects of the movie, contributing some pretty interesting details and information.
Disc 2 contains the bulk of the extras. In the featurette "From Hockey to Hollywood: The Actors' Journey" the filmmakers detail how they decided early on to cast real hockey players in the roles in the hopes of turning them into actors. This feature chronicles that effort and it runs for 28 minutes. Also included is an ESPN program titled "Miracle ESPN Roundtable with Linda Cohn as seen on ESPN Classic". In it, you will see host Linda Cohn speaking to three of the members from the team, Mike Eruzione, Buzz Schneider and Jim Craig together with Kurt Russell as they talk mainly about coach Herb Brooks. This program runs for 40 minutes and gives some insights into how Brooks ran the team and what made him so successful. Next, we have "First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers", featuring grainy raw footages of talks the production team had with the real Herb Brooks about his motivations and other philosophies. If you want to know more about the coach, this is a very interesting piece to check out. For "The Sound of Miracle" feature, it details the sound team's efforts in bringing the many aspects of a hockey game to life with realistic audio representations of crowd noises, skates slicing the ice, sticks hitting, the puck bouncing off the boards etc. All these individual sounds are layered together into the final hockey sequences, producing a remarkable piece of work. Finally, "Outtakes" features line flubs and other on-set shenanigans.
"Miracle" comes with a glossy insert.
Unfortunately, Herb Brooks never got to see the finished movie. Sadly, he was killed in a car crash last August. However, the memory of this extraordinary man will never fade away. "Miracle" does Brooks and his team justice by providing a moving and hopefully, accurate account of an event that energized an entire nation and should be used to provide a lasting legacy for future generations of hockey players.
"Miracle" works on many levels. As a movie, the pace is brisk and the on-ice action exciting. It is also emotionally engaging and inspirational. In fact, there is nothing bad to say about it. As far as I can see, "Miracle"'s only weakness is also its main strength--the "Miracle on Ice" event itself. While the movie offers an unbalanced point of view, for many people, it is also an event to cherish. It will be so much better if all of us can see it as an inspirational tale instead of one that promotes ethnocentrism.