Before Red Dawn, before Rocky IV, and before Rambo III, there was the “Miracle on Ice.” Before President Reagan challenged the “Evil Empire,” a rag-tag bunch of American college kids and young men (average age: 21) beat the previously invincible Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Many of us, at least those of us who are over 30, remember our utterly unexpected 4-3 victory during the height of the Cold War with fondness and pride. But since it happened over a generation ago, and because most young people these days think Communism sounds like a long-ago cured disease, like a combination of consumption and rheumatism, it bears repeating what happened all those years ago.
It was February, 1980. Americans were still recovering from Vietnam and Watergate. There were endless lines for gasoline and a general malaise at home. Shag carpeting and Supertramp were our latest contributions to culture and taste. Abroad, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and 52 Americans were taken hostage by Islamic fundamentalists in Iran. The Seventies sure stunk, but it didn’t look like the Eighties were going to be much better.
That year’s winter games were in Lake Placid, New York. While American speed skater Eric Heiden wowed the world with a record five gold medals, our hockey team wasn’t expected to compete for any sort of medal. After all, the United States had last won a gold medal in hockey in 1960. Meanwhile, the USSR had won the gold for hockey in every Olympiad since 1964, had shut out the NHL All-Stars 6-0 a few months earlier, had crushed the U.S. team 10-3 in a Madison Square Garden exhibition just days before the Olympics began, and was composed of grizzled, accomplished veterans. But the original “Dream Team” somehow defeated the mighty Russians in the semifinals and went on to win the gold. No one who heard it will ever forget announcer Al Michael’s incredulous line as time ran out: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
It was the greatest upset in sports history, and it’s amazing that it’s taken so long for there to be a major motion picture about it. There was a made-for-TV version in 1981, but it starred Karl Malden and Steve Guttenberg and, well, the less said about that, the better. Fortunately, Disney has come to the rescue with the 135-minute long Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks, along with a cast of largely unknown actors.
The anonymous actors are a good touch, though, because the 1980 hockey team was made up of a bunch of nobodies. They were relatively unrecognizable because they were amateurs. This is in stark contrast to today’s Olympic athletes, who are mostly high-priced, pampered professionals (at least in basketball, baseball, and hockey) who are generally just looking for yet another way to cash in on their fame and ability.
But if there had to be a star on this quintessential “team,” it would have been Brooks, the master motivator (some might say manipulator) and straight-talking head coach who handpicked every player and whipped them into a championship squad. And if there’s a star in Miracle, it is undoubtedly Russell, whose dead-on portrayal of the legendary hockey coach is his best work since 1979’s Elvis. Brooks was depicted as a tyrant on ice with a loud plaid sports coat, tight polyester pants, and a pronounced Minnesota accent. Russell has the accent and all of Brooks’s other mannerisms down pat, and convincingly conveys the coach’s struggles as a man battling his own Olympic demons.
Russell’s performance is a pleasant surprise, as is the fact that notoriously liberal Hollywood doesn’t impose some sort of moral equivalency on the game and on the superpower rivalry in general. I half expected that Disney would show the Soviet players with their families, going to church and smiling, implying that both sides were equally culpable for the dreadful state of international affairs. Instead, the Russians were portrayed as robotic and imperialistic bullies who fell apart at the first sign of adversity. Miracle is probably not intended to be a political statement, or to be a piece of patriotic propaganda, but the historical facts speak for themselves. America was looking for a hero and we found 20 of them, with names like Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, and Mark Johnson. It was imperative, in the words of a woman who sent a telegram to Brooks before the game, that we “beat those Commie bastards.” To its credit, Miracle did not shy away from the notion that the defeat of the Soviet Union, albeit only on ice, was just the tonic that the American people needed during those dark days.
Yet another impressive aspect of Miracle is the action on the ice, which is spectacular. One reason may be that Disney hired hockey players who could act, not thespians who had to learn how to chase a puck. They choreographed every pass, every body check, and every score based on the actual games. Even Russell looks good on skates, which isn’t a shock since his teenage son aspires to be a professional goalie. But in the end, you don’t need to be a hockey fan to enjoy Miracle. That’s why Al Michaels told his television audience just before the game began that “Most of America doesn’t know the difference between a blue line or a clothesline, but that’s irrelevant.” What was relevant back then was the underdog hockey team’s story of hard work, commitment, and camaraderie. Small wonder, then, that the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, even 24 years later, is still exciting, still powerful, and still packing an emotional wallop.
Miracle may never be considered a cinematic masterpiece, which is fair enough. Still, if you want to see an uplifting and accurate account of a great event in American history, then Miracle is the film for you. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion. Someone else might say that Miracle pulled on the heartstrings too much, or that some of the acting was mediocre, or that it might have even been jingoistic at times.
But do you know what I say to people like that?
U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
–David Hickey lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and never really cared for either hockey or Kurt Russell. After seeing Miracle he has a new appreciation for both.