"Miracle" is the story of the United States Olympic hockey team, made up of a ragtag collection of college players, who met and defeated the monster Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.
Yes, and? There has to be more, right? We've seen a hundred of these movies before: the episodes in which we're shown the tensions, the rivalries, the melding of disparate personalities into one great big fighting machine. The pain, the agony, the triumph. It's all here in "Miracle," and yet while the team triumphs the film is a failure. I'll come to the reason in a moment.
"Miracle" begins in the summer of 1979, with the coach, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) telling his wife (Patricia Clarkson in her pre-"Station Agent" faithful-sidekick role) that the Olympic committee would never choose him because he insists on doing things his way; no politics for him. No doubt you're ahead of me here. They do choose him, a hundred players come for a week's selection process, but Herb has his team picked out by the end of the first day. Okay. Now we know he means business.
And then he's the brutal taskmaster, always demanding more and more of his team. They skate wind sprints until they're puking all over the ice while his faithful assistant coach keeps blowing his whistle to start them again. Herb won't even pick up his own son after hockey practice, so poor Clarkson must hold the family together all by herself. There's no cliché this film doesn't honor.
Still, all of this could work as a film - the driven coach, the melding of the team, the climactic game against the vaunted Soviets - in either of two ways: First, as a kind of documentary, a fly-on-the-wall view of how things went during those epic seven months; the story, though familiar, is actually inspirational. Or second, as a narrative portrait of the evolution of Brooks and the team, seen through the eyes of a member of the team, or through Brooks's own eyes.
Instead, the film tries to do both - follow the action and follow the coach - and here we come to the problem: Brooks is not only tough, driven, narrow, totally consumed with the task and the goal, he's also sadly uninteresting. He's a bore. He grunts, he nods, he barks, he shouts - he could do anything he wants, but we wouldn't care. There's so little in him for us to respond to that the film actually sags every time the camera is on him. His character is so underwritten, so dull and self-centered, that it's a wonder poor Clarkson has stayed with him all these years. And Russell has adopted a kind of guttural monotone voice, which may for all I know be exactly how Brooks talked (he died just after filming was completed), but without a personality we care about underneath, it only grates. And the film's attempt at vignetting each of the players lacks the insights that would make individuals stand out in our minds. We recognize the names but not the personalities. The film picks up only during the games, when action can substitute for meaning.
And yet the story is there: Three days before the Olympics begin, the U.S. team plays the Soviets in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden and is beaten 10-3. How can they possibly overcome the humiliation to turn it around just a couple of weeks later? The film has no clue. And why did they play the exhibition anyway? Most likely it was a political decision of the Olympic Committee, which would have been a fascinating sidelight, but we're not privy to it.
The games are shot well, with a feel for the kinetic speed and flash that are a hallmark of hockey; and the climactic game uses the call by Al Michaels as the commentary, which works fine, but by then we're counting the seconds along with the game clock, waiting to get out of the theatre.