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Fighting the Cold War with hockey


The appearance of Miracle, a docudrama about the remarkable victory of the United States hockey team over the USSR in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, provides an occasion to teach a lesson in the history of the later 20th century.

            A long initial montage sequence features newsreel and television footage of a great many serious moments in a dark and complicated time, including Nixon's resignation, the fall of Saigon, the election of Jimmy Carter, the energy shortage, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The sequence also shows a number of events in the broad popular culture, like the rise of disco, the death of Elvis, the creation of Saturday Night Live, and perhaps most important for the movie, the humiliation of the American basketball team at the previous Olympic Games.

            Like a chapter in a Dos Passos novel, that opening, mingling high and low culture, important and trivial matters, attempts to comprehend and express the spirit of the time, to provide a context for the amazing Olympic hockey victory. Emphasizing a number of international incidents and propaganda defeats that diminished the stature of the United States, it reminds us of the tensions of the Cold War, which underlie the climactic contest of the film. While the picture itself shows in great detail the process by which a group of young amateur players beat the best hockey team in the world, it also stresses the significance of that victory in that time.

            The movie revolves around the personality and presence of the team's coach, Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), who defied the odds and the hockey establishment with his own special vision of a team that could take on the Russians. Pointing out that the last American team lost 15-1 to the Czech B squad, Brooks resolves to recruit, as he says, not the best players, but the right players, and teach them to blend the Canadian and the Russian style of play.

            Instead of a rough, physical game, Brooks emphasized conditioning, strategy, finesse, and selfless teamwork, a radical departure for a sport that too often consists of furious skating back and forth, long slapshots, and frequent pauses for brutal fistfights.

            Most of the film shows the difficult, often-painful process by which Brooks chose and instructed his athletes. He instilled a sense of mission and created a bond among a group of disparate amateurs to give them the confidence to confront a team that had defeated the National Hockey League All Stars 10-0.

            In accomplishing his goal, Brooks also tended to unite the young men by kindling resentment against his manner and methods. He became in their eyes something of a tyrant, a harsh and unrelenting taskmaster who manipulated their psyches and pushed them far beyond their normal limits. The team's success, after a great deal of punishing effort and frequent failure, testified to the effectiveness of his approach, but also resulted in a most ambiguous relationship between coach and team.

            Aside from the personal stories of Brooks and several of the identifiable players --- most famously, the captain, Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey), and the goalie, Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) --- most of the picture concentrates on the exciting business of the team's training and preparation. The intrinsic fascination of the drills and practices, the frequent shots of exercises, wind sprints, workouts, and strategy sessions suit American cinema's enormous skill at understanding and depicting sheer process and method. Additionally, in the apparently authentic tradition of great coaches, Brooks not only gets inside his players' heads, but also preaches to them in the cryptic apothegms of a Zen master, which often puzzles the players as much as the audience.

            In alternating its focus on and off the ice, Miracle builds smoothly and excitingly toward its climactic moment, the semi-final game at Lake Placid. With its back-and-forth movement, its terrific speed, its frequent exchanges of the puck, hockey lends itself to the movie's quick cuts and low-level camera placements, which capture the furious pace of the action and the constant change of direction.

            Though they might have taken more advantage of the overhead camera to show some of the patterns of the game, the filmmakers duplicate the intensity of play and, wonderfully, even though we all know the outcome, somehow contrive to make the games and The Game tense and suspenseful.

            Appropriately, in the midst of the usual sport film uplift, the movie also suggests the cruel irony and melancholy that accompany so many athletic triumphs. The filmmakers note that after principal photography was completed, Herb Brooks died in an automobile accident last summer and never saw the final film.

            History records the common and unhappy truth that most of the players on the team reached their point of what Fitzgerald called "acute limited excellence" in the game of their lives and never equaled it again. Miracle at least memorializes the man, the players, and that shining moment of triumph: sic transit gloria mundi.

Miracle, starring Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Sean McCann, Kenneth Welsh, Eddie Cahill, Patrick O'Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West, Kenneth Mitchell, Eric Peter-Kaiser, Bobby Hanson, Joseph Cure, Billy Schneider, Nate Miller; written by Eric Guggenheim; directed by Gavin O'Connor. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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