Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/11/07 09:54:53

"Anchored by yet another amazing Kurt Russell performance."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Here's a happy surprise. 'Miracle,' which looks like a flag-waving Disney sports movie, gives us instead a complex portrait of a man, and Kurt Russell delivers a major performance as that man while barely varying his facial expressions or the rhythm of his gum-chewing (all coaches, it seems, must chew gum).

As Herb Brooks, who coached the United States amateur hockey team to Olympic victory in 1980, Russell adopts the rounded vowels of Minnesota, giving his usually knife-edged speech patterns a loose poetry they've never had before. Nothing else about Herb is loose, though. Hair parted to the side in a helmet-head cut without a strand out of place, Herb yells without seeming aggressive and argues without seeming argumentative. Rigid to the core, he's always right, and knows it.

Herb is positioned as the kind of simple optimist -- if you work and bleed hard enough for it, you can have it -- that America needs in its time of "malaise," as Jimmy Carter famously put it. Uncertain about its position in the world, frazzled by a decade of turmoil and excess, America at the end of the '70s is an underdog. Herb hasn't gotten the memo on that, or on anything else except hockey. (His wife at one point has to wrest his attention away from his roster list so that he can catch a TV report about the hostages in Iran.) Herb doesn't see any reason why a sufficiently scrappy, passionate, and hungry team can't stand skate to skate with the feared Soviet team, which has won every gold medal for over a decade.

This isn't Rocky IV all over again: None of the Soviet players scowls at an American player and sneers "Ve vill break you." In fact, for much of the movie, Herb pays more respect to the Soviet team than he does to the team he's driving so hard. Obsessively watching films of the Soviets on the ice, he knows why they've been champions, and he knows that the only way to beat them is to play like them. The triumphalism at the climax is not jingoistic but a sort of relief that an underdog team from an underdog country held off a great team against the odds.

Herb's training, which borders on sadistic at times, takes up about two-thirds of the movie. He hammers the players like a Zen master, pushing them to their physical limits and beyond. Once they learn precision, they must learn passion. Herb understands that shared anguish can result in a foxhole rapport, the cement of a winning team. Soon enough, players aren't just asking to play hurt; they're demanding it. The players jokingly give Herb a whip for Christmas, in both a tweak at their relentless taskmaster and a tribute. Herb's assistant coach (a solid job by Noah Emmerich, serving as the good cop to Russell's bad cop) sometimes shakes his head at the boss's excesses but never questions them.

"You were born to be hockey players," Herb shouts at his boys at a crucial moment, and he, too, was chosen by the gods of the ice; he'd been a player on the 1960 Olympic team (the last American team to win), but got cut at the last minute. This is Herb's chance to take the gold, and fortunately he has a patient wife (Patricia Clarkson, who does what she can in the Wife role) who won't get after him too much about picking the kids up from ballet or hockey practice when he's got a 4:00 meeting. Herb takes the team right up to the top and right down to the wire, and Kurt Russell maintains a quiet, unshowy intensity. His big moment is played in shadow, at a respectful distance, when emotion finally overwhelms Herb to the point where he can't chew it along with his gum, and he goes off to be alone while the crowd goes crazy.

See 'Miracle' even if you don't give a damn about hockey (I don't): Kurt Russell as this tight, held-in man is the purest, most expressive thing you're going to see at the movies this season.

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