Ice Guys Finish First
It’s Seabiscuit on ice as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team gets immortalized on film with warm, fuzzy, ain’t-America-grand, flag-waving apple-piety. Times were tough and things were bad and the world looked like it was going to hell, and gosh darn but didn’t the country need this little pick-me-up in the form of twenty redblooded American kids beating and skating the crap out of the Russians and taking home the gold. And as with Seabiscuit, because times are tough and things are bad and the whole world’s going to hell once again, this plucky little movie with its plucky big hockey players hauls a lump up into your throat and a tear into your eye and makes you wish we had something even a little bit inspirational and triumphant to feel good about today.
Not that Miracle isn’t as corny and clichéd as, well, a plucky underdog team giving their all, like our guys were the Jamaican bobsled team or the Bad News Bears or something. Just as the film was getting ready to get to the big game — U.S.A. versus U.S.S.R. — and everything looked hopeless and our best player is out with a busted tendon or something and we’d been beaten soundly by the Russians in an exhibition game two weeks earlier and Iranian students are holding decent Americans hostage in Tehran what o what will we do, I leaned over to my brother, who as something of a sports nut called shotgun on this screening before I’d even heard of the movie, and I said: “I bet the Americans win.” And he laughed. Cuz that’s the kind of movie it is, where if you didn’t already know the ending, you’d already know the ending.
But that’s okay, cuz there’s Good Stuff here. The hockey is pretty exciting to watch, even for me, who understands precisely zip about hockey or hockey strategy or the purpose of any hockey position except the goalie, duh. But there’s as much energy on the ice as there is in a real game, except here it’s all staged to replicate existing real games, isn’t it? Director Gavin O’Connor’s best-known previous film — and he’s made only a few — is 1999’s Tumbleweeds, a slow-moving chick flick (one of the good ones), and here he’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, all guys who can’t talk about, you know, things, and only know how to express themselves on the ice, and fast fast fast pucks moving in a blur. And he does it well — it’s not O’Connor’s fault, nor indeed even screenwriter Eric Guggenheim, if the real story of this team is pretty much the stuff of clichés. They make it all as humanly real and as plausibly believable as the improbable truth can be.
There’s Kurt Russell (Dark Blue, 3000 Miles to Graceland) as team coach Herb Brooks, and this may be the performance of his life. Forget that he pulls off the plaid jackets and the plaid pants and the bad ties and the awful hairdo that looks like a Marv Albert toupee but probably isn’t — the 70s fashions are downright shudder-inducing. It’s that his Brooks is this tightly wound bundle of lost dreams — he’d gotten booted off the 1960 team just before it went on to win the last medal the American hockey players won before the Soviets started stomping all over the sport — and he’s carried a wound over that, and he’s determined to do everything he can possibly do to make sure his kids win this year. And if that means making them hate him as an impetus to forge a feel of camaraderie and team spirit amongst themselves, so be it. He’s a bastard with his heart in the right place, and his moment, all alone under the stands, when his kids beat the Russians, and even by himself he can barely let go enough to rejoice in it, is a little piece of wonderful acting by Russell.
And the kids… terrific, all of them, and they’re not really kids — they’re playing younger than they are. Mostly they’re new to acting — though apparently Eddie Cahill, who plays goalie Jim Craig, is something of a heartthrob from appearances on Friends and Sex and the City, neither of which I watch, but he is very cute; Craig is dealing with the recent death of his mother, more inarticulate male emotional stuff, not overdone or underdone, just enough to make you feel for the guy. But Michael Mantenuto, making his acting debut, steals the movie. He’s Jack O’Callahan, the aforementioned injured player — and don’t ask me what position he plays; all I know is he’s on the ice and he’s not the goalie — and when he busts his leg up just prior to the Olympic opening ceremonies, he’s sure he’s about to be pulled from the team. When Brooks comes to tell him he’d better heal up so he can play in the medal round, Mantenuto breaks into the widest, sweetest, crookedest, more heartfelt grin you can imagine that his enthusiasm for the game alone is enough to make you bust into tears in sympathy.
I just barely remember the real 1980 Olympics — I was 10 years old, just starting to be aware of the larger world — and I do seem to have a dim memory of the excitement when the U.S. hockey team won the gold medal. At least it wasn’t quite so long ago as Seabiscuit.
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