2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Miracle" envisions the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team as the Seabiscuit of its day. The Soviets were the thoroughbreds - the best trained, most highly skilled skaters in a program that had won four straight gold medals.
The Americans were the mutts - scrappy amateurs playing with less talent but an abundance of heart and guts. Just as War Admiral shrinks when Seabiscuit meets his eye while galloping down the homestretch, the Soviets, in theory, will falter when the Americans match them shot for shot, check for check.
This is undeniable material. Even to this non-hockey fan, the Team USA victory over the Soviets was one of the more thrilling sporting events I've watched. Plus, the story appeals to the way many Americans prefer to view their country, as a producer of unlikely underdogs. As the movie astutely points out, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was a true kind of "dream team," not a group of jaded pros expected to trounce the competition or else.
So "Miracle" scores, though at times it's the movie equivalent of an empty-netter. Victory for those Olympians may have been unlikely, but "Miracle" makes a beeline toward its goal from its first gliding steps.
Directed by Gavin O'Connor ("Tumbleweeds") and written by newcomer Eric Guggenheim, "Miracle" focuses on the tireless efforts of University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks to recruit and shape collegiate players into a cohesive unit, all while the country reels from the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan.
Kurt Russell plays the coach with a convincing Upper Midwestern accent and a humbleness that matches his subject. The actor, like the coach, is dedicated to crafting a winner by working hard without placing himself above his team.
Brooks desires role players who can be trained to play in the precise, fast-moving, pass-happy style favored by the Soviets. The movie is at its liveliest when the coach runs his players through grueling drills. Miracles, you see, are 99 percent perspiration.
Brooks, meanwhile, spends almost every waking hour viewing game films. The movie may celebrate the unstoppable American spirit, but it also suggests that you must become a machine to beat the machine.
In telling a Cold War tale, "Miracle" resorts to Cold War storytelling, portraying the Soviet players as expressionless automatons and their coach as guy who always looks like he's sucking a moldy lemon.
In theory, the U.S. players are colorful free spirits, but it's hard to tell these guys apart with their fab wavy dark hair. They're each painted with a few thick brush strokes: Goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) is unfocused after losing his mother, and Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey) almost gets cut because he has trouble putting the puck into the goal. The movie doesn't exactly generate suspense over whether these problems will be rectified come the Lake Placid games.
Noah Emmerich plays another of Brooks' friendly sidekicks, assistant coach Craig Patrick, while Patricia Clarkson, so complex in "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent," can do little with the two-dimensional role of Herb's wife, Patty. She's almost a 1980 version of Clarkson's '50s housewife in "Far From Heaven," minus the irony.
At one point she tells him, "This is more than just a hockey game to a lot of people." You think? Like maybe that's why they made a movie about it?
We can cut "Miracle" some slack because it's a Disney film in the old-fashioned sense, but still, it doesn't need to state the obvious quite so often. Like "Seabiscuit," the filmmakers feel compelled to spell out every idea in big block letters.
The filmmakers don't have to sell their case so strenuously. The reconstruction of the climactic game, with Al Michaels' and Ken Dryden's original commentary played over the footage, is exciting enough to carry the emotional freight.
In the end, what we have is an effective exercise in flag-waving nostalgia, which may feel good but doesn't leave you with much. While the movie's heroes lay everything on the line, "Miracle" is too content to skate along the surface.
Directed by Gavin O'Connor; written by Eric Guggenheim; photographed by Daniel Stoloff; edited by John Gilroy; production designed by John Willett; music by Mark Isham; produced by Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, Feb. 6. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG (language, some rough sports action).
Herb Brooks - Kurt Russell
Patty Brooks - Patricia Clarkson
Craig Patrick - Noah EmmerichWalter Bush - Sean McCann
Doc Nagobads - Kenneth Welsh
Jim Craig - Eddie Cahill