Twenty-four years ago, well-known American sportscaster Al Michaels uttered a line for the sports history books: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" This instantly quotable exhortation had its genesis in the epochal showdown between America's 1980 Olympic hockey team and the Russian team, consistent Gold medallists in hockey for the two prior decades. With the Cold War generating heat, the match-up carried unavoidable symbolism, and certainly patriotic fervor remains inseparable from the USA's triumph at Lake Placid. The title of Disney's version of the story telegraphs the foregone conclusion, the kind that is the deeply satisfying ritual of such sports movies, but the title is also disingenuous. As Gavin O'Connor's film insists, this was no miracle: America's victory was the result of brilliant coaching and the smart, spirited hockey playing of a young and hungry team.
O'Connor begins his film with a title sequence flip through the news events of the '70s, setting the stage for an America in need of a hopeful, emotional boost. When University hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) presents his game plan to a fearfully stodgy Olynpic committee at the Amateur Hockey Association, he meets with skepticism. Brooks proposes to beat the Soviets at their own game, with a hand-picked team ready to "play their hearts out." "That's a pretty lofty goal, Herb," he's told. "Well, that's why I want to pursue it," he replies.
Granted the job which most consider a fool's errand, Brooks gets to work while his wife (Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson, again an empathy electromagnet) swallows her needs and supports him. Though questioned at every turn, Brooks sticks to his guns, beginning with his swift selection of his team: "I'm not looking for the best players," he insists. "I'm looking for the right ones." Once armed with his youthful charges—average age: 21—Brooks drives them to their very limits: physically, they must cultivate a superhuman endurance; mentally, they must be willing to break their own spirits before they can build up the team. Relying on his assistant coach (Noah Emmerich) and Latvian team doctor (Kenneth Welsh) to play nice, Brooks willingly plays the bad guy until he has a familial team. A winning ensemble of skilled skaters (including Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, and Patrick O'Brien Demsey as Jim Craig, Jack O'Callahan and Mike Eruzione, respectively) captures the talent and heart of the surprising dream team.
Much of this may feel like "Monday-morning" myth-making, with the screen Brooks a seemingly infallible coaching genius with method to his madness (as the doc puts it, "Herb has a reason for everything he does"). Of course, Brooks' success against the odds is inarguable, and the criminally underrated Russell makes him seem not prescient, but believably shrewd and stubbornly driven. In one superbly handled scene, Russell nails the recognizable fervor that's equal parts rage in defeat and tough-love coaching, as he drills the team to within an inch of their lives after an unacceptably dispiriting defeat. Brooks claims to be lousy at sentimental pep talk, but he takes a page from Jimmy Carter (heard on the radio rallying the nation, in his famous "crisis of confidence" speech, to "stop crying and start sweating—we cannot fail"); naturally, Russell gets to deliver a couple of stirring speeches in the home stretch.
Though there's more than a whiff of formula to Disney's true-sports follow-up to the hit The Rookie (complete with glorious middle-aged hero and concrete, predictable life lessons), director O'Connor makes all the right moves. He brings dynamic staging to the ice action, sensibly employs archival material for context and verisimilitude, and makes the energy of the crowd part of the climactic action (with Michaels' running commentary steadily underscoring the action). Screenwriter Eric Guggenheim builds political and personal tensions at a palatable pace and allows a realistic cross-section of dry wit and sophomoric humor from the coaches and players. Without unduly rubbing in the superpower conflict, O'Connor allows a fair measure of American patriotism, channeled through team pride.
Sports movies are, perhaps, the equivalent of lump-in-the-throat weepies for guys, but anyone who loves sports can recognize the essence of this story (even the hockey strategies should be roughly accessible to neophytes). Miracle capitalizes on its understanding of team dynamics: the bonding of pain and gain alike, the ownership of integrity over ego, the satisfaction of communal accomplishment. When Brooks remarks, "This is more than a hockey game to a lot of people," he knows whereof he speaks. Stick around for the end credits, which offer "where are they now?" updates and a tribute to Brooks, who died shortly after the film's production, in a car accident.
Miracle comes to Blu-ray in an impressive hi-def A/V upgrade. The picture quality is true to the original look of the film, with contrast that runs a bit hot and an overall impression that's not modern glossy but a throwback to 1980 hues and texture. The true image matches well with a definitive, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that captures all of the excitement on and off the ice.
The feature is surrounded by outstanding bonus features honoring the history that inspired the film and depicting the film's making. First up is a nicely informative audio commentary by director Gavin O'Connor, director of photography Dan Stoloff & editor John Gilroy.
"The Making of Miracle" (17:52, SD) includes comparisons of actual game footage to the filmic recreations as a part of demonstrating the filmmakers' rigor. Participants include Al Michaels, Kurt Russell, O'Connor, producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, casting directors Randi Hiller and Sarah Halley Finn, Eddie Cahill, Noah Emmerich, Stoloff, Gilroy, sound designer Elliott Koretz, co-supervising sound editor Rob Nokes, re-recording mixers Myron Nettinga and Michael Minkler, composer Mark Isham, and Patricia Clarkson.
"From Hockey to Hollywood: The Actors' Journeys" (27:31, SD) focuses on how the cast was assembled, and the actors and their counterparts commenting on each other; extensive audition footage is included. Interviewed are O'Connor, Finn, Hiller, Billy Schneider, Patrick O'Brien Demsey, Mike Eruzione, Nathan West, Eric Peter-Kaiser, Nathan West, Buzz Schneider, Nate Miller, Chris Koch, Cahill, Jim Craig, Michael Mantenuto, and Jack O'Callahan.
"The Sound of Miracle" (10:24, SD) is that rare feature devoted to film sound. Participants include O'Connor, Nokes, Minkler, Koretz, Gilroy, supervising music editor Curtis Roush, music supervisor Brian Ross, Isham, and Nettinga.
"Miracle ESPN Roundtable with Linda Cohn" (41:08, SD) gathers Russell, Eruzione, Buzz Schneider, and Craig for an interesting discussion of the historic team and its importance.
In "First Impressions: Herb Brooks with Kurt Russell and the Filmmakers" (21:13, SD) O'Connor introduces raw footage of Brooks meeting with the filmmakers and cast.
Last up is a series of "Outtakes" (4:52, SD).
This fine sports film gets a fine hi-def treatment from Disney; hockey fans, in particular, shouldn't hesitate to pick it up.
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