directed by Gavin O'Connor
(Walt Disney, 2004)

Just how bad were the '70s?

Well, there was Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the fall of Saigon, gas lines, gas rationing, Billy Beer, Love Canal and Three Mile Island -- not to mention polyester pants, plaid sport coats and "fat"-top haircuts.

All these things and more are brought home for viewers in no uncertain terms in the montage that opens Miracle, the story -- or at least Disney's version of it -- of how a guy who got cut at the last minute from the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team came back to coach a hand-picked batch of diamonds-in-the-rough to victory over the elite Soviet squad in the Winter Olympics by a lake that was anything but placid in 1980.

But the real miracle of the United States' victory in the '80 Winter Olympics came a year earlier, in Colorado, when University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks took on his first, and probably fiercest, opponent to winning the Olympic gold: the U.S. Olympic committee, which wasn't certain Brooks was the right man or that his system was the right approach for the job.

And that's part of the fun of Miracle, even though we knew how it was going to end even before casting for the movie began. Miracle works not via a surprise ending -- which truly would have been surprising -- but by revealing intimate details of the process by which Brooks picked, cajoled, manipulated and infuriated his team to victory against all the odds and the advice of his assistant (Noah Emmerich), his team doctor (Kenneth Welsh) and his wife (Patty Brooks).

But Miracle is more than a good story well told; it's an exciting story well shown. The hockey games in Miracle move at ice level. Shot after shot follows the puck close-up as it slices down the arena from stick to stick and goal to goal. It's not the faces that are important here; it's the face-offs. This would be great hockey no matter who was playing it.

Director Gavin O'Connor then balances his action sequences with the stories behind them, of how Brooks bonded 20 disparate souls into 40 soles on ice and made them believe, even when he himself wasn't entirely sure, that they could beat a team that hadn't lost since practically the fall of the last czar.

Granted, Miracle gets corny at times. After all, this isn't Slap Shot.

Ratcheting up its Rookie formula for success, Disney goes for far too many cutaway shots to Herb's wife in the stands, and anybody who can't guess who'll be the last player cut either hasn't been to the movies before or isn't paying attention.

But all that gets lost when Brooks goes to work on his team, proving that Russell -- who first found stardom in lightweight family fare like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, then went on to Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China -- was the perfect choice for a character like Brooks: part hero, part hellion and not a hint of compromise.

Yet when all is said and done, when the man who preached teamwork and coming together until anyone with good sense wanted to strangle him, where does Coach Herb go to celebrate the greatest American hockey victory of all time? To an empty cinder-block-and-steam-pipe corridor in the arena basement. It's an image that rivals the best of cinematographer Dan Stoloff's hockey shots -- triumphantly satisfying while whetting your appetite for more. Now that's good storytelling.

Then too, Russell, at 52, just looks so right in polyester pants, plaid sports coat and a "fat"-top hairdo. And if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 4 September 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.