Tim Tan Huynh

Miracle

9 Feb 2018 — I don't like the sentimentality, but I do like the authenticity in this movie about a beloved moment in American sports history.
Miracle
The Miracle poster shows US players in historically accurate uniforms and equipment.

Context

A couple of months ago, I watched Miracle for the first time. I like the sports action, but the movie is too clichéd and sappy, even for a Disney movie. Because I wasn’t alive when the real Miracle on Ice happened, I underestimated the impact of this event at the time. I forgot that it happened amid the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis. Global stability seemed to be wavering and American pride seemed to be waning.

The movie’s opening does a good job of setting the stage. It uses still images and video clips as well as news announcements, which might or might not be historic, to show the political, economic, and cultural landmarks of the 1970s from an American perspective. There are glimpses of world-changing innovations, like silicon chips, but overall, people have reason to be disillusioned after the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.

USA Hockey had reason to be disillusioned, too. The US hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in hockey since 1960, and the Soviet hockey program had won the four gold medals prior to 1980. I remember my sixth-grade teacher explaining that the Soviet players were officially paid as members of the army, so they were technically amateur athletes. With full-time players, the Soviets established a philosophy of chemistry, continuity, and creativity.

Coaching

In the first act, Kurt Russell’s Herb Brooks states that his team will use a hybrid of the vaunted Soviet philosophy and the Canadian philosophy. Tactics and especially training are the most interesting aspects of sports movies in my view, and Miracle is no different. I like watching the players as they practice and prepare and imagine myself doing the same things—even the infamous sprints that inspire a scene in D2: The Mighty Ducks.

Brooks forces his players to do these endless sprints following an exhibition tie. This real-life incident exemplifies his old-school/new-school approach. He’s using negative reinforcement to punish the players for their lack of performance while channelling any resentment that they have for each other toward himself. His mandatory psychological questionnaire and last-minute player tryout are other instances of his practical and symbolic decisions.

To a lesser extent, the team dynamics are interesting. I didn’t know that Brooks had several months to develop the team or that the team was together the entire time; I thought that they came together for month, at most, before the Olympics. Nonetheless, Brooks had to select, teach, and unite his players in a shorter period compared to the Soviets, whose players were reportedly together for 11 months a year.

Authenticity

Russell is convincing as the coach who has to lead the youngest team in the competition, most of whom don’t know him or each other. Maybe it’s the 70s style, the Minnesota accent, or the blunt sayings that are from the real Herb Brooks. Russell’s performance is the most memorable part of the movie. His character’s subplot is the most interesting, too: I’ve learned from Miracle that Brooks had been cut from the 1960 team just before the Olympics.

The other subplots, like Jim Craig’s mourning and Jack O’Callahan’s injury, didn’t emotionally affect me, even though they actually happened. I think that, more so than the acting or directing, these scenes are limited by the sappiness that is Disney’s approach. I might be biased against live-action Disney movies, but I don’t expect them to have the maturity of something like Friday Night Lights, another based-on-real-events sports drama from 2004.

I’ll give credit to director Gavin O’Connor and his crew for their attention to detail. Russell doesn’t show off any hockey skills, but the cast members who play the players obviously have backgrounds in competitive hockey. Their uniforms and equipment are authentic, too. Al Michaels even re-creates his play-by-play commentary, except for his career-defining, “Do you believe in miracles?” line that is re-purposed for the movie.

Epilogue

In the past couple of days, I’ve watched a pre-9/11, HBO documentary (2001) and an ESPN documentary (circa 2002-2003). They both have interviews with men from the Soviet side, including legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who had been surprisingly pulled from the game. These interviews both humanize the other side and glamorize the upset loss because, despite their embarrassment, they appreciate their opponents’ monumental feat, too.

The ESPN documentary mentions the impact on American hockey. Thirteen of the 20 US players joined NHL teams, though only a handful of them had careers of significant length (Wikipedia). Still, they arguably paved the way for a generation that included some of the best American players in NHL history. That generation has no doubt inspired many current American NHL stars, who are, in turn, probably inspiring the next generation now.

Herb Brooks and assistant coach Craig Patrick later coached in the NHL. The former had a journeyman’s career as a pro coach, whereas the latter had much more success as a general manager. Both Brooks and Patrick are in the Hockey Hall of Fame; Brooks is also in the IIHF Hall of Fame. He coached France in 1998, at the first Winter Olympics that featured NHLers, and he coached the US again in 2002, at the first Winter Olympics in America since 1980.

Possibilities

Brooks coaching the US to a gold medal in Salt Lake City—five months after 9/11, with the best American players, many of whom probably grew up idolizing the 1980 players, all of whom were at the opening ceremony when captain Mike Eruzione lit the Olympic torch—would have been poetic. I will never see a Miracle sequel and Brooks will never see the original, but as the movie declares, he wouldn’t need to see it anyway.

The man would’ve been too old to coach the US in PyeongChang where the Winter Olympics are underway. Like in Lake Placid, NHLers are not participating like they have in the five previous Games. The Cold War is long past, but US-Russia relations are still frosty and places like Afghanistan and Iran still have turmoil. I can’t decide whether global stability is better or worse compared to 38 years ago, considering the current tension on the Korean peninsula.

In any case, something that I like about team sports, especially on the international stage, is that a high-profile showdown, like the one between the US and the Soviet Union in 1980, can represent anything and everything to anyone. The players—the people who actually compete—will probably tell you in confidence that it’s just another game to them, at least if you ask them at the time.