A Case For Greatness: MIRACLE

In which Kurt Russell headlines a sports movie masterpiece.

Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”

It's hard to call a movie considered one of the best ever made about hockey, and generally regarded as a Great Sports Film, as “underrated.” But those designations relegate Miracle’s accomplishments to a very specific and limited set of parameters, and director Gavin O’Connor’s film transcends those to be a genuinely great and affecting story even for people who don’t care about Herb Brooks or hockey or the Olympics or the climate of unrest, and a national need for clarity and uplift, that it depicts with such beautiful and undeniable humanity. Sports contests themselves are defined by the rules and procedures of gameplay, and their essential competitiveness produce win-loss narratives - and eventually, the clichés that often enable non-sports fans and critics in general to dismiss their impact on screen. But Miracle’s subject matter, approach and technique provides a uniquely visceral and singularly emotional look at victory, defeat, perseverance and excellence, filtered through both the events of a more distant past and the echo of a troubled present.

The film’s title comes from what Sports Illustrated called the top sports moment of the 20th century, when the U.S. national men’s hockey team defeated four-time gold medalists the Soviet Union. But watching the film, their victory wasn’t a miracle at all; it was the result of many months of hard work, planning and conditioning, undertaken by a team of young men skillfully coached by Herb Brooks. O’Connor captures the players’ energy on the ice - and Brooks’ unconventional but effective methods - with precision and intensity, turning the rink into a battlefield, first for the solidarity and cohesiveness of a team comprised of unseasoned amateurs, and then for victory once they face opponents with more size, speed and experience.

Miracle celebrates its 15th anniversary on February 6th, and rewatching it now, it feels important to note that it was likely greenlit after 9/11, if not as a partial result of that tragedy. O’Connor, working with first-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim, expands the scope of the real-life match to highlight its sociocultural relevance in 1980, arriving at the tail end of a decade of substantial unrest and disillusionment. An opening montage winds on perhaps slightly longer than it needs to in order to set up the details of Brooks’ hiring and training of this new team, but it perfectly draws the parallels between what was going on in the zeitgeist then, and how uncertain and disorienting American life was in the months and years immediately after September 2001. A victory for the U.S. hockey team over the established, dominant Soviets gave people something to cheer - a symbolic but important win over a team that everyone in America could root against.

O’Connor’s depiction of Brooks’ methods often seems unflattering, particularly as it overlaps with his treatment of his wife, but none of his drills, or his punishments are without purpose. They not only reiterate the importance of the physical challenges that these young players would face, both to them and to us, but showcase the psychological demands - and discipline - needed for athletic excellence. Kurt Russell suppresses his natural bravado to play the calculating, taciturn, but as we eventually discover, deeply sentimental Brooks delivering one of the best performances of his career; though the grooming choices were, as we later learn, direct fealty to the appearance of the real Brooks, they do something to Russell’s face, forcing us to notice the icy blue of his eyes and the impermeability of his resolve as he drives his players to the heights he knows they’re capable of, even if they don’t yet.

The matches themselves are completely comprehensible for laypeople or hockey dummies like me to understand without seeming to cater excessively to them: Brooks’ complex plays and strategies are ultimately less important than the “creativity and flow” he seeks from the players when they’re on the ice, which develops via O’Connor’s camerawork into an invigorating rhythm. The U.S. and Soviet players take the ice in their fateful match and circle on their half of the rink like two schools of sharks preparing to rumble; once they’re in the thick of the match, they glide and scramble and dart and crash into one another, and you can hear every skate dig into the ice, every slap of a stick, every echo of the puck tracing its way behind the goal from one player to his teammate. Hockey’s undeniable physicality provides a tremendous foundation for cinematic trickery, but the filmmakers seem content to keep the focus on the hearts and minds of the players, which amplifies the stakes of each point scored or lost much more greatly than their beautiful sound effects and editing work.

The Cold War hadn’t yet begun to thaw by the 1980 Olympics, but media coverage had evolved by that point to make the Russians unambiguous villains in at least Americans’ eyes. But even if O’Connor doesn’t bother to dimensionalize the Soviet players, you get a sense that his true feelings about the match synchronize with Brooks’s when the coach wonders why it can’t simply be about who’s the better team rather than who’s the better country. At the same time, the film ends with the observation that their victory gave Americans something to believe in, and that need seems greater than ever, given their ability to rejuvenate, inspire and unify. Of course, in the intervening decades, corporatization, athletic scandals, and institutional concerns about player health (not to mention an expansion of entertainment options, media coverage and an increasingly complex, distracting world) have undermined audiences’ ability to focus, much less centralize on a single match or showdown more than once or twice a year, and almost never with the impact and cultural footprint of something like this victory. But Miracle offers a tribute to that need, and provides a time capsule of when it was met; by encapsulating the political, the personal, and emotional stakes of the real events that it is depicting, O’Connor’s film reminds us that sports movies - and the sports they are based upon - are often, if not always, about much more than winning and losing.