One of the small pleasures of a movie like "Miracle," the new Olympics underdog celebration, is that no matter what I tell you, its outcome is preordained. Even if you were born after 1980, the film's title and its Disney pedigree give everything away. Plus, its poster has a young player howling in triumph as he seemingly exhales the Stars and Stripes, while a tag line reads, "If you believe in yourself, anything can happen."
Anything can happen, but nothing you can't predict.
The place is the Lake Placid, N.Y., Olympics. The game is hockey. The opponent is anything Eastern Bloc. And the movie is shameless, as Kurt Russell leads a 20-man crew to the gold medal stand.
"Miracle" retells the "greatest moment in sports history" (according to its makers), in which a team of scrappy boys from Boston and Minnesota are pitted against the glacial behemoths of the USSR. Yes, that old rivalry again. It might get tired but it will never die, and the Soviets are safe, timeless foes who'll do in a pinch.
Eric Guggenheim's script is a lot of old sports-movie parts stapled to a new game: the prickly coach (Russell), the unripe team, the quest for redemption, the unbeatable enemy, the supportive wife (Patricia Clarkson) who can be counted on for pick-me-up homilies and to wrap her arms around hubby as he watches game film.
Yet as entertainment, "Miracle" more or less wins: The hockey matches, for example, have the exciting you-are-there quality of old combat movies. Russell plays the late Herb Brooks, that stern University of Minnesota hockey coach who wins the job of revamping the Olympic team in order to make some kind of run for a medal. Defeating the Soviets, who took the gold home in '64, '68, '72, and '76, seems out of the question. But Coach Brooks believes: All they have to do is beat them at their own brutalizing game.
Needless to say, Brooks is a maverick. He picks his squad faster than the Olympic hockey committee would like. He's tough, yet somehow the kids on the squad warm up to him anyway, filling out the psychology tests he subjects them to before the first practice gets underway, enduring his frigid demeanor because they assume he knows best.
Guggenheim and director Gavin O'Connor take these cliches so seriously it's tempting to follow their lead. "Miracle" runs for more than two hours, which is a lot of time to spend with stock characters. But the guys who comprise Team USA are remarkably good performers, especially for men hired merely to look credible on the ice. Starting with Eddie Cahill, who plays goalie Jim Craig, they look more comfortable and their faces are more open than your average jock actor's.
Russell is very good, too. The actor's hair is a shiny tuft as mysterious as Bobby Orr's. Pent-up yet plain-spoken, he suggests that he knows something private about Brooks. The movie drops hints about the coach's failed athletic past, and Russell provides his own blend of shame, manipulation, and hubris that come into sharpest focus during the last scenes.
Whether he's taking potshots at his wife for not understanding coaching or psyching out a kid into playing while injured, Russell seems truly unafraid of you disliking him. Of course, this movie is brought to you by the same studio responsible for such recent odds-beating, feel-good sports flicks as "Remember the Titans" and "The Rookie," so don't bet against loving him by the end.
The Soviets, meanwhile, have no such complexity. They're machines, meant to symbolize the dark mood our country was in. Indeed, the movie keeps alluding to catastrophic world events. The Soviet Union, for instance, had just invaded Afghanistan. And there's one fine sequence that broadcasts President Jimmy Carter's eloquent "malaise" speech over shots of Team USA playing football. The movie qualifies as a sort of nostalgic political period piece: Remember when we weren't the most loathed country on the planet?But no matter how hard the movie pushes them on us, world politics are ultimately beside the point. "Miracle" successfully aims to rouse a partisan crowd. Snare drums are spanked as Coach Brooks delivers his big "this is your time" speech. And eventually, the music swells close to "Star Wars" proportions. You might cheer. You might cry. For a minute, you might even wish it were you on that medal stand.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.