Film Review: ‘Miracle’: Communist Specter Gets Body-Slammed in Olympic Hockey Biopic

Popcorn & inspiration
March 3, 2020 Updated: March 8, 2020
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PG | | Biography, Drama, History | 6 February 2004 (USA)

I’d never seen the movie “Miracle” until yesterday. I’d experienced the story of the 1980 gold-medal-winning, American underdog Olympic hockey team firsthand my sophomore year, down at the student drinking establishment “The Log” at Williams College, after classes—along with serious amounts of beer and even greater amounts of hooting, hollering, table-banging, and cheering.

“Miracle” went completely under my radar. I’d missed the 1981 ABC docudrama “Miracle on Ice,” starring Karl Malden, figuring it could never recapture the excitement. However—Disney delivers.

three Olympic hockey players chase puck
(L–R) Jack O’Callahan (Michael Mantenuto), Buzz Schneider (Billy Schneider, playing his dad), and Mark Pavelich (Chris Koch) chase the puck in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

“Miracle” is the Hollywood-ized telling of the now-mythical story of how Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) smelted, forged, and honed our gold-medal-winning U.S. amateur team in just seven months. And grew them all the way up, from a motley crew of collegiate, cream-of-the-crop talents who’d all been big fish in their various little ponds, into a formidable juggernaut of world-class warriors.

hockey team poses for photo on ice
Cast of actors playing the 1980 Olympic American hockey team: players and coaches, and team doctor, in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

With a regimen of brutal workouts normally seen only in military special-forces boot camps (and Iowan collegiate wrestling), and a virtuoso ability to manipulate and tweak the emotions of his boys via whatever-means-necessary mind games, Brooks created a team—the only team in the world—that could take on the massive, legendary, Goliath-like Soviet professionals.

coach and injured hockey player
Kurt Russell (L) and Michael Mantenuto star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

This is literally a tale of boys challenging men, but this boyhood-to-manhood rite-of-passage ordeal was not do-or-die serious like that of the Masai tribe (where a 130-pound, 16-year-old boy takes on an 800-pound, adult male African lion until one or the other is dead).

two men talk on bus
Eddie Cahill (L) and Kurt Russell star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

Nonetheless, the political matchup between the United States’ free democratic republic versus the Soviet Union’s communist regime rode heavily on these young men’s shoulders. The 1980 Lake Placid Olympics took place smack-dab in the middle of the America and USSR superpower Cold War that had been underway since approximately 1947 and didn’t end until 1991.

Prior to the Lake Placid Games, the Soviets utterly dominated the Olympic hockey world, bagging five out of six gold medals between 1956 and 1980. (They won bronze in 1960.) As mentioned, our college boys were amateurs. These were the Russians’ top professionals.

Herb Brooks

What was Herb Brooks’s motivation and how’d he get so good at what he did? Basically this: Brooks was one of the last guys cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team. That created a powerful need to finish what he started.

That said, Brooks wasn’t interested in the political implications particularly, nor the media frenzy—he was a jock at heart, and this was a coach’s dream. As was famously said of storied football coach Bear Bryant, “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”

Herb simply wanted to take these college boys and turn them into a massive, armor-piercing tank round, and blow the unstoppable, megalithic Soviet tank to kingdom come, because he was thoroughly fed up with hearing about how the Soviets couldn’t be beat.

coach and hockey study game plan
Kurt Russell (C) as Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

Brooks studied film on the Soviets nonstop and figured out that what set them apart was due to “skating, passing, flow, and creativity.” That, and the fact that nobody heretofore had mustered up the willpower to attain the cardio level needed to stay with the Soviets for the duration of the game. In his opinion, this level of play was missing from both amateur and pro American hockey.

Is it perhaps ironic that coach Brooks was able to beat the communists by divesting his players of their American individualism and making them submit to, well … communism? Teamwork for the greater good? But isn’t that the nature of all team sports? Are team sports a form of communism? In a word, no.

A political-philosophical tangent: The basis of communism is that everyone is exactly the same. But sports-wise, that would translate into some nonsense like this: It doesn’t matter who’s hot on a given game night—everyone needs to have an equal opportunity, so don’t pass the puck to the guy who’s on fire; pass it to his less-talented teammate and let him try and score, so everyone can have an equal share.

Who does that? Not even the commies. Nyet. Their philosophy of “skating, passing, flow, and creativity” meant that if one guy is on a hot streak—you pass your comrade the puck with alacrity and creativity and flow. And skating.

Speaking of flow, the American hockey boys hilariously notice that their first-string team of three forwards seems to have developed a hive-mind—a supernormal ability of knowing each other’s thoughts and finishing each other’s sentences—and dub them “The Coneheads” à la the famous “Saturday Night Live” skit about aliens. The hockey Conehead boys take flow and creativity to new heights.

two hockey players shake hands
Patrick O’Brien Demsey (L) and Nathan West star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

So the America-Soviet showdown boils down to a bunch of boys playing for love of the game, versus a bunch of slave-driven men playing out of terror of being sent to the Gulag Archipelago, or Siberia, if they mess up too egregiously. Who might be more motivated to win?

Popcorn & Inspiration

“Miracle” is spectacularly inspirational. During the opening credits, the films runs a montage of news footage of the American invasion of Cambodia, the death of Elvis, America’s 1970s oil crisis, Nixon and Watergate, etc. That’s all to say, America was in desperate need of some inspiration.

hockey player draped in American flag
Eddie Cahill stars in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

The film portrays the full intensity of the body-checking, testosterone-fueled, excellent hockey violence that manly men live for (and it’s not toxic) without exceeding its PG rating. And when footage shows sportscaster Al Michaels asking his now-renowned, rhetorical question—”Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”—I felt it almost as strongly as I did sitting beer-buzzed at The Log, back in ’80.

coach with arms raised, hockey team celebrating
Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell, C) celebrates victory among his players, in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

The game remains one of the best moments in sports history and represents a spiritual triumph over the Specter of Communism. Check out the audiobook called “How the Specter of Communism Is Ruling Our World” and find out why this showdown was so important in the grand scheme of things.

Two men in suits at hockey rink
Kurt Russell (L) and Noah Emmerich star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution /Disney)

Noah Emmerich shines as the assistant coach to Brooks, as does Patricia Clarkson as Brooks’s (sort of) long-suffering but proud, supporting wife. Brooks was probably not the easiest man to live with. Talk about your strong, silent types; he has to leave the stadium after the win to allow himself a private, stifled “Yes!!”

man in hat, woman in red dress
Kurt Russell and Patricia Clarkson star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

The ensemble of hockey-savvy actors (Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, Patrick O’Brien Demsey, and Nathan West) nail the heart and soul of what might be America’s all-time favorite sports team ever.

American 1980 Olympic hockey team
Foreground: Eddie Cahill (L) and Patrick O’Brien Demsey star in “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

Brooks himself never got to see the film; he passed away in a car accident in August 2003. He did serve as a consultant during principal filming. But this is all reminiscent of the Taoist saying, “If a man hears the Tao in the morning, he can die in the evening.” Brooks fulfilled his life’s mission inspirationally.

woman in leopardskin coat, man in dark blue suit
Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell at an event for “Miracle.” (Chris Large/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution/Disney)

‘Miracle’
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Sean McCann, Eddie Cahill, Patrick O’Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West, Kenneth Mitchell, Kenneth Welsh
Rated: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2004
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch