U.S. Release Date: February 6, 2004
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Eric Guggenheim
Composer: Mark Isham
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (for language and some rough sports action)

Kurt Russell Skates in Sports Miracle
by Scott Holleran

Kurt Russell's stirring lead performance elevates an otherwise lackluster sports movie, Miracle, from Walt Disney Pictures. As the coach who led a team of scrappy young Americans to a breathtaking ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics, Russell projects the goal-oriented mission behind the so-called miracle.

Like Apollo 13, the thrilling game between the amateur Americans and the state-sponsored athletes trained under the communist Soviet Union is an historic event rich with cinematic possibility.

The year was 1980. The economy was miserable. The U.S. embassy in Iran had been attacked by jihad Moslems, Americans had been seized, held hostage and tortured for months, and America had neither retaliated by force nor rescued the hostages. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and, in protest, President Carter had boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Reds vowed to defeat America on our own soil at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. With a hockey team that dominated the Olympics for decades, a humiliating loss to the Soviets looked like a sure thing.

America won instead. Almost 25 years later, sports historians credit one individual—Coach Herb Brooks (Russell)—with one of the greatest upset victories in American sports. Director Gavin O'Connor rightly put Brooks, a former player who had been cut from the 1960 Olympic team at Squaw Valley, in the center of the rink. Russell gives a commanding performance.

If only Eric Guggenheim's script were as focused. An emphasis on minor players detracts from the most memorable teammates, goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and Captain Mike Eruzione (an excellent turn by Patrick O'Brien Demsey). Director O'Connor holds back too much drama for too long. While each game has its tension, the team's triumphal arc—opening ceremonies, a string of victories, a player being draped by the flag—is either offered in flashes or not shown. The hockey scenes are exhilarating.

With the glory muted and a young cast portrayed mostly by hockey players not actors, Miracle relies on Russell. Patricia Clarkson, who matches his understated style as the coach's wife, helps him.

Miracle falls short of the history mark. Coach Brooks may have been inspired by President Carter's infamous malaise speech, as Miracle suggests, but the rest of the wounded nation saw it as a slap in the face by an incompetent president. By downplaying references to communism and Islam—which were converging threats in 1980—Miracle is robbed of the motivation for the passionately deafening cries "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" that transformed an athletic achievement into American cultural history.

Kurt Russell is the reason to witness Miracle—other than the fact that, thanks to the late Herb Brooks and the young men who were Team U.S.A., this spectacle actually happened. His performances—from Disney's dimpled teenager to his roles in Elvis, Silkwood and Stargate—are first-rate. As an intense coach who refused to compromise his standards and rejuvenated America's sense of its own greatness, Mr. Russell is at the top of his game.

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