Miracle is a sports movie. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you get inspired by movies in which:

• the highlights of famous sports showdowns are re-created by athletic actors
• an underdog triumphs to the accompaniment of a bombastic, French-horn-heavy soundtrack
• the camera pans across American-flag-waving sports fans
• an unorthodox coach wins games and wins them his way
• long practice sessions show the players sweating in slow motion while the coach works them half to death
• the coach offers inspirational locker-room assurances ("We can beat these guys!" and "This is more than just a hockey game to a lot of people") and gruff challenges ("Who do you play for?!")
• the opposing team is as sinister as a battalion of stormtroopers or a horde of hungry zombies
• rapturous music provokes tears of joy at the end …

… well, by all means, go see Miracle. It serves up a heaping plate of nothing more than you'd expect. But if you go to the movies hoping to experience something new, to gain some insight into the strategy of a sport or the soul of an athlete, you'll walk away from Miracle disappointed. The movie has nothing that is distinctly its own, except a tough-as-nails performance by Kurt Russell. For many, that will be enough. They'll cheer, they'll be drawn to the edge of their seat, they'll cry, and they'll leave exhilarated. For others, it'll be a tiresome chore that runs far too long.

Count me with the latter crowd. I sat there for 135 minutes waiting for something to surprise me, waiting for Mark Isham's musical cue cards—Be inspired! Be nervous! Abandon all hope of victory! Mourn the fallen hockey player! Stand up and cheer euphorically!—to be put away so I could respond with my own genuine feelings to the events.

Since I've learned more about this team from articles and news accounts than I did from this movie, Russell's excellent work as Coach Herb Brooks was the only thing that kept me in my seat. It's the first time I've seen him try to disappear into a character that doesn't have that signature Kurt Russell roguishness. He's boldly letting his age show, and that's a good thing. The new face of Kurt Russell is tougher, more chiseled, deeply lined so that he reminds me of Nic Nolte, seemingly carved from a wall of granite, and those ice blue eyes suggest a stone-cold will. Given very little but coaching slogans and tough guy poses to work with, Russell squeezes an admirable performance out of the role.

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But Brooks is not the kind of man who inspires me. Like the coach in Radio, he is portrayed as a man who will do things his way even if the players disagree and his wife feels disrespected. I'm sorry, but the end does not justify the means. Olympic gold does not give a man permission to neglect his kids, his wife, his responsibilities. Sports victories fade, but a father's influence on his kids does not. Maybe Brooks was a good father, but this film sure gives us no evidence of that.

It's painful to see the extravagantly talented Patricia Clarkson, who gave three complicated and memorable performances in 2003 (Pieces of April, The Station Agent, All the Real Girls), performing here in the straightjacket of the smiling supportive wife. She has only two modes: scowlingly challenging her husband until he furrows his brow in sympathy, or smile and applaud like a beaming cheerleader.

The team members are a generic bunch of guys, some of whom are lucky enough to have personalities. Goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) is sullen, a bundle of repressed feelings because his mom recently died. Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey) can't quite get his game on, and has to prove his spirit to his coach. But at the end of the film we still have very little idea of who they were … or how they won.

This is not a condemnation of all sports movies. Several have broken the mold and shown how an athlete's story can be more than just by-the-numbers entertainment. The Rookie is a fantastic example, and Chariots of Fire is on my short list of all-time favorites. Both explore the personalities, minds, and hearts of the men who rise to the challenges. They were stories about calling, moral conviction, the responsibilities of a husband, the influence of a father, the wisdom of a good Christian, and the debilitating role of anger in an athlete's quest. Kurt Russell's Coach Brooks is convincing and complicated, but the movie only scratches the surface of this rough, grizzled character.

Miracle also fails when it comes to portraying the big games. There were plenty of up-close-and-personal shots of men being knocked down, hockey sticks slashing, skates sending up showers of ice, and the enthusiastic narration of Al Michaels (from the original broadcasts.) Daniel Stoloff's camera jumps randomly from angle to angle, point to point, so that we rarely know where we are on the rink. We don't get to see whole plays or a strategy being executed. It's pro sports Michael Bay-style.

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Disney is missing a golden opportunity. They could buy the rights to the greatest games ever played, then show them on the big screen and sell tickets. That would be a greater thrill. The cameras would hold still, giving us a view of the whole rink. We could keep track of the details, the score, the time on the clock. They could even add a sentimental soundtrack. Use the work that's already been done.

Why blow your budget on a shallow re-creation that only holds a fraction of the excitement offered by the real thing?

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Coach Brooks assures his players they were born to be hockey players. How do you know what you were "born to be"? How do we find God's calling for our lives?

  2. Americans love freedom of expression and individualism. Yet, these players surrendered personal preferences and submitted to a harsh, demanding authority. Are Brooks and his team good role models? What virtues or flaws do you see in their example?

  3. Does Brooks, as portrayed here, have his priorities in the right place?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The film contains some crass language, a scene at a bar, a few sexual references, and a few violent exchanges (most of them on the hockey rink). But families will find this film relatively inoffensive, as its PG rating would indicate.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 02/12/04

Director Gavin O'Connor has a crowd-pleaser on his hands with Miracle, a big screen re-creation of the victory of the United States Olympic hockey team over the Soviets in 1980. Kurt Russell plays the tough-as-nails coach Herb Brooks in an excellent performance of gruff determination. Most religious press critics are thrilled with the results.

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) expresses enthusiasm for the film, largely because it gives him opportunity to praise the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Ben Cornish (Christian Spotlight) is pleased to find a film that "families can feel safe viewing together. This film focuses on themes of teamwork, perseverance, and the family dynamics between players and coaches, while avoiding the foul language and lewd behavior that have become popular themes in sports related films."

Bob Waliszewski (Plugged In) says, "Parents can capitalize on the film's attention to family issues, the pursuit of excellence and the ethics of competition. They can even turn some of the movie's socio-political references into an impromptu civics lesson." But Waliszewski is one of the few willing to question Coach Brooks' tactics. Brooks, he says, is "no saint. His temper gets the best of him. His workouts border on abuse. And his professional obsession creates conflict at home."

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"Miracle will make you want to stand up and cheer," raves Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "O'Connor and first-time screenwriter Eric Guggenheim have crafted an accessible, meticulous, rousing tribute to the legendary game that should both please mainstream audiences and hold up to aficionado scrutiny."

"Miracle was an entertaining movie," says Megan Lindeman (Hollywood Jesus). "I can't say it was the best I've ever seen, but coming from a woman, any sports film that rates 'entertaining' must have some merit!"

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a star-spangled crowd-pleaser … with good writing, good acting and good direction, resulting in a movie sure to take home box-office gold." He says it will "lump the throat of even the most cynical viewers."

I am not a particularly cynical viewer. Further, I have nothing against a good sports flick. The Rookie brought tears to my eyes with its detailed character development and heartfelt storytelling. Chariots of Fire is one of my all-time favorites. But Miracle bored and frustrated me, because it did what any formulaic, predictable sports movie does. It gives you a bunch of fairly generic, good-looking players, a coach who is gruff and difficult, and opponents who look sinister. It builds the tension with sweaty, tense practice sessions. And then it turns them loose against each other.

Even more disappointing is the "sport footage," which seems to have been filmed from the puck's point of view. Instead of letting us observe the strategies and the plays, we're given jostling, dizzying sequences in which men knock each other down and slash at each other with hockey sticks.

Viewers would be in for a far greater thrill if they tracked down a video of the game itself.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) had a similar experience. "It never captures the euphoric feeling fans had during that memorable upset. Everything is there from crescendoing music (it crescendos a lot) to borrowing elements found in every successful jock flick from Remember the Titans to The Bad News Bears. The trouble is … O'Connor approaches the material with the same bombastic style with which Herb Brooks coached his athletes. He pushes just a little too hard."

Mainstream critics are generally pleased with the film, but a few hoped for something more.

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for language and some rough sports action)
Directed By
Gavin O'Connor
Run Time
2 hours 15 minutes
Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Nathan West
Theatre Release
February 06, 2004 by Walt Disney Pictures
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