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Do you believe?

Times Staff Writer

The great radio monologist Jean Shepherd liked to say that the only truth to be found on television was in sports, because only in sports could the good guys end up losing. But not always. Sometimes the good guys actually win.

In the 1980 Winter Olympics, if you were an American or in fact any nationality except Russian, the good guys won big. In a victory recently chosen as the greatest sports moment of the century by Sports Illustrated, the brash and unheralded U.S. ice hockey team, average age 21, defeated a four-time gold-medal-winning Soviet squad that had had a death grip on the sport for more than a dozen years. The miracle is not that they’ve made a film about that legendary feat; the miracle is that it’s actually a good one.

“Miracle,” as the story is predictably called after sportscaster Al Michaels’ famous “Do you believe in miracles?” exclamation at the final buzzer, does something that’s become rarer than breaking new ground or pushing the envelope.

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Powered by an excellent Kurt Russell performance, “Miracle” treats old-fashioned, emotional material with an intelligence that respects both the story and the audience. This is a classically well-made studio entertainment that, like “The Rookie” of a few years back, has the knack of being moving without shamelessly overdoing a sure thing.

Director Gavin O’Connor, working from a fine script credited to Eric Guggenheim (more about that later), turned out to be a good choice to take us behind the scenes of the putative miracle, to show us that far from being an act of God this tribute to the power of belief and how it gets created was months if not years in the making.

That “Tumbleweeds,” O’Connor’s debut film and a prizewinner at Sundance, had an indie sensibility but a mainstream heart was a good sign for this venture. For what “Miracle” manages to do is combine a hockey story in which the players have all their teeth but lack the ability to swear (the reality is often the reverse) with a desire to stay as close to reality as those kinds of Disney strictures allow.

A key thing O’Connor and producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray (also responsible for “The Rookie”) insisted on was as much on-ice verisimilitude as possible. That meant that almost all the actors who made up the 20-man American squad that won the gold medal had played hockey on at least a college level.

That was critical given that 133 plays were created for “Miracle” by the film’s skillful sports coordinator, Mark Ellis. Helped as well by Daniel Stoloff’s cinematography and John Gilroy’s crisp editing, the film smartly re-creates the sense of flow, power, speed and coordination that characterize hockey at its best.

Just as essential was the casting of Russell as coach Herb Brooks, the iconoclastic mind behind the miracle. An actor for more than 40 years, Russell is turning into a true exception, a performer who is improving in a major way as he gets older and seems to relax more into his own skin.

Russell’s last role, the crooked cop in “Dark Blue,” was his best ever, and his work here is quieter, less flamboyant but just as good. With his eyes sunk deep into his face, the better to keep his players at a distance, Russell completely brings to life this complex man, with a weakness for chewing gum and awful clothing (“one of the worst-dressed coaches ever,” one writer wrote, “in a sport that has produced a number of fashion disasters”) yet with a parallel genius for diagraming plays and getting inside his players’ heads.

It is one of the strengths of “Miracle” that it emphasizes a phenomenon familiar to athletes and sportswriters but often downplayed in sports movies, and that’s the way successful coaches invariably turn out to be shrewd psychologists, absolute masters of manipulative mind games. What it takes to win, what it takes to get athletes to play over their heads and sustain their crucial mental edge, is often as petty as scapegoating or as cutthroat as making them fear their jobs are at stake. Brooks used all these techniques and more, and the film’s script does not shy away from showing it.

As to who wrote that script, the answer is -- as is often the case in Hollywood -- murky.

Guggenheim, the only credited writer, did the first draft, but according to a thorough article by the Oregonian’s Shawn Levy, the lion’s share of the script as shot was apparently written by Portland’s credit-less Mike Rich, the man who, no surprise, wrote “The Rookie.”

This kind of frustrating imbroglio -- which so irked the Disney organization, the film’s distributor, it printed a one-of-a- kind release poster for Rich listing him as the writer -- is far from uncommon. It’s sad not only because it is business as usual as far as the perplexing wisdom of the Writers Guild arbitration process goes, but also because it is deeply unfair to both writers. Surely there has to be a better way.

Because setting the scene was important to director O’Connor, “Miracle’s” opening credits use extensive newsreel footage to carefully set this story at the tail end of the 1970s, a not-feel-good decade characterized by gas lines and the Iranian hostage crisis. A time, in other words, desperately in need of American heroes.

Brooks is not only an unlikely hero, his unconventional ideas made him an unlikely person to be selected to coach the U.S. team in the first place.

As he explained to the selection committee, Brooks wanted to beat the Russians at their own game, using not egotistical all-stars but young players he could personally mold into a cohesive team that would skate harder and faster for longer than any group the Soviets had faced.

Brooks also wanted a team whose minds he could play like the arena organ, a team whose insecurities he could personally identify with from his own history as the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. team. “I’ll be your coach. I won’t be your friend,” he announces to the group, becoming such a demanding taskmaster that when the team gives him a Christmas present, it turns out to be a bullwhip.

Given a protagonist who chose to be seen as the all-knowing autocrat, “Miracle” had to find ways to humanize and warm the man up. Open-faced Noah Emmerich is cast as assistant coach Craig Patrick, and, more critically, the versatile Patricia Clarkson is cast as the coach’s wife, Patty. With her innate intelligence and perspicacity, Clarkson raises the level of even standard characters, and knowing that Brooks would have someone like her as a wife automatically makes him a more interesting person.

Though you can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Brooks and company if his ideas had been wrong, the coach has a reason for everything he does. He wants this team to care as much as he does; he wants to forcefully infuse them with his own unbending spirit. Whether he does that with a harsh “You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone” or an inspirational “This cannot be a team of common men” doesn’t matter, he just wants to get it done. “Great moments,” he says, “are born from great opportunity,” and no one can accuse Brooks and his players, or this film, of not taking advantage of theirs.

*

‘Miracle’

MPAA rating: PG for language and some rough sports action.

Times guidelines: Locker room talk is mild; violence is limited to some hard-hitting checks and a brawl; suitable for preteens and up.

Kurt Russell...Herb Brooks

Patricia Clarkson...Patty Brooks

Noah Emmerich...Craig Patrick

Eddie Cahill...Jim Craig

Michael Mantenuto...Jack O’Callahan

Patrick O’Brien Demsey...Mike Eruzione

Al Michaels...Himself

Walt Disney Pictures presents a Mayhem Pictures production, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Gavin O’Connor. Producers Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray. Executive producers Justis Greene, Ross Greenburg. Screenplay by Eric Guggenheim. Cinematographer Daniel Stoloff. Editor John Gilroy. Costume designer Tom Bronson. Music Mark Isham. Production designer John Willett. Art director Ross Dempster. Set decorator Mary Lou Storey. Running time: 2 hour, 15 minutes.

In general release.


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