For as simple as it seems, Disney's Miracle is really two movies.
One is about an ice-hockey coach who persuades a bunch of overachieving young players to see things his way. The other is about a coach who's persuaded to see things America's way. Or at least Disney's.
The first movie is agreeable sports hokum, based on the story of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that famously beat monster odds -- and a juggernaut Soviet squad -- to claim the gold at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. It's told through the eyes of Herb Brooks, the University of Minnesota coach who 20 years earlier was cut from a U.S. Olympic team that went on to triumph in California. Cagey, intense Brooks (Kurt Russell) decides to revolutionize the way Americans play the game, and hand-picks and drills his boys till they're tactically and psychologically a unit.
Ironically, director Gavin O'Connor takes pains to show us why that golden upset wasn't any miracle: These guys busted their humps, not least Brooks himself, whose wife (an underused Patricia Clarkson) barely tolerates his obsession and whose kindly assistant, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich), questions Brooks' worst excesses. (Patrick of course is now the Pittsburgh Penguins' longtime general manager; Brooks, who died in a car accident last year, briefly coached the Pens during the 1999 season).
Working with the mostly inexperienced actors who portray the players, O'Connor meanwhile stick-handles through mini-dramas including the rise to leadership of forward Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey) and the tearjerker relationship between goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) and his out-of-work, widowed father. It all culminates in a nail-biting comeback upset of the Soviets -- and a somewhat anticlimactic gold-medal win against Finland -- that the U.S. media modestly dubbed "the miracle on ice."
Then there's that second movie. It skates right alongside the first, and starts with a montage of '70s turmoil, from the bombing of Cambodia through a dead Elvis, Three Mile Island and lines at the gas pump. Then O'Connor cuts to Colorado Springs, where at the benignly corporate offices of the American Hockey Association, Brooks announces a plan that will set everything right -- apparently not just the floundering U.S. amateur hockey program, but, inadvertantly, the whole damn country.
As even Eric Guggenheim's script admits, this is an odd turn of affairs: Herb Brooks, after all, doesn't know from politics; his wife has to practically force him to watch the news that Americans have been taken hostage in Iran. Brooks has the utmost respect for the Soviet team, and even as the hoopla around his squad grows, he's all hockey, and keeps insisting it's just a game. But everyone tells him it's more. Inflation is high, the world's going crazy and "the country is ready for this," one American hockey official preaches to Brooks.
O'Connor, whose first feature was the sturdy indie drama Tumbleweeds, has a sure touch with his engaging young actors and with Russell, who gives a thoughtful, charismatic performance; the on-ice action is fast and fun. But in so strenuously asserting the significance of its subject matter, the film bloats with ambition and topples (if in a relatively subdued way) into the sort of silliness and jingoism you worry all along it won't avoid.
One scene finds Brooks returning from a Christmas party and listening on his car radio to snippets of President Carter's infamous "Crisis of Confidence" speech, in which Carter diagnosed Americans with a loss of faith in the future. It was a remarkable speech, and politically foolish: After quoting a long list of people's criticisms of himself and their pessimistic views of the country, Carter acknowledged he'd sometimes failed in office, that Vietnam demonstrated that our armies are not always invincible nor our causes always just, and -- before announcing a mandatory energy conservation program -- that "too many of us tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption."
Miracle reproduces many of these lines (though of course they're sheery lunacy; like George W. says, shopping is patriotic). But while Carter concludes with a plea that we unite in common struggle, the speech still comes off as a major bummer, and we're left wondering whether O'Connor sees it as an exhortation to victory or merely symptomatic of the malaise it decries.
Such uncertainty dissipates with the martial drums (and uniformed guardsmen) that line the U.S. team's path from the Lake Placid locker room to its on-ice showdown with the Reds (in which, if we're to believe our eyes, the Soviets were the only ones throwing cheap shots). With sportscaster footage lifted from the era, and chanting crowds and iconic flag-draping tableaux faithfully recreated, O'Connor insists that an ice-hockey tournament set America on a course of national renewal (just the like Steelers' four Super Bowls saved their namesake industry -- remember?). No doubt it's the same national renewal that had Reagan arming Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan, whose invasion by the Soviets the film accents. But that, of course, is yet another story.
Miracle traffics in some cherished myths, not least the myth of the all-knowing coach. But the biggest is that one Cold War superpower beating another at hockey is some kind of historical breakwater. Somehow, I don't think the confidence in a cross-ice pass is the kind Carter, all those years ago, had in mind.