MIRACLE

PG

-By Daniel Eagan


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Earnestly upbeat but still open-minded, Miracle tells how a relatively obscure college coach engineered one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. Boasting a first-rate performance from Kurt Russell, the film will resonate most for those who remember seeing the U.S. team take on the Russians in 1980. Others may be more skeptical of the Disneyfication of a cherished national touchstone.

Herb Brooks (Russell) skated briefly on the 1960 U.S. ice hockey team, the last one to win an Olympic medal. The Russians have taken the gold in every subsequent Olympics, at times humiliating the Americans. Now coaching a college team in Minnesota, Brooks tells a dubious interviewing committee that the Russians can be beaten. But he only has seven months until the games start in Lake Placid.

Brooks, assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) and team physician Doc Nagobads (Kenneth Welsh) test college athletes at a training camp in Colorado. Brooks selects 26 aspirants (20 eventually made the team), who then undergo months of grueling training. The coach leans towards team players rather than stars, and forces his athletes into individual and collective tests that leave them exhausted, puzzled and angry.

No one can keep up with Brooks' dedication. The players, the Olympic committee, even his long-suffering wife Patty (Patricia Clarkson) question his methods and motives. That's before a tie in an exhibition game leads to a punitive practice session that comes very close to abuse. But by the time the Olympics roll around, Brooks has molded his players into a tight-knit unit that can compete against the world's best.

Russell invests Brooks with such dogged determination that the coach's insults, double-crosses and neglect of his family seem like shrewd calculations. Stripping away sentiment, Russell makes the coach's moments of self-awareness stark and compelling. His downcast eyes as he contemplates an injury in the locker room, the look of exultation he gives his wife after a victory--these help make Brooks a very real, if not always likeable, person.

Playing the hapless Ralph Cox, Kenneth Mitchell is a standout among the skaters. Eddie Cahill (as goalie Jim Craig) and Michael Mantenuto (as hothead Jack O'Callahan) also make good impressions. But most of the players are reduced to a moment or two of screen time. Similarly, some scenes on the ice have a startling clarity and impact. But a lot of the hockey is just a blur of punishing body checks and miraculous saves.

For the most part, director Gavin O'Connor wisely keeps the focus tightly on Brooks (who in real life died in a car accident shortly after filming). The problem with Miracle isn't its lesson-a-scene script as much as the flag-waving hoopla during the climax. The accomplishments of Brooks and his team are exciting enough without it.

-Daniel Eagan


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