Bad News Bears down the Bear
MIRACLE (Gavin O’Connor, USA, 2004, 6)
Do you believe in miracles … Yes!!! MIRACLES was actually a good movie in a genre that’s usually pretty dire (early-year Disney “Bad News Bears” template movie). I went with a work friend who is not the movie fan I am, but is much more of a hockey fan (he wore a Minnesota Wild jersey to the film); and we were both impressed.
The best thing about the film, the story of the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team, is the hockey action sequences. To start with, all hail the casting director. The actors who played the US team looked like hockey players, both in terms of general build and gait, and in terms of none being pretty-boys, as opposed to guys who get crashed into boards or have 100 mph pucks reshape their facial features. Their nonstardom made them as anonymous as hockey players (I wouldn’t recognize Mats Sundin or Martin Brodeur if I saw them out of uniform, like I would Tim Duncan or Barry Bonds), and it also underlined one of the most amazing things about the 1980 gold-medal team and their victory over the invincible Soviet Union (um … I guess that’s a spoiler for those of my readers under the age of 20) — that the real-life team was made up of unknowns. And though they got the Wheaties box and all that, none of them went onto especially distinguished NHL careers, even coach Herb Brooks himself, the central character in MIRACLE.
I don’t *know* if the use of unknowns meant the filmmakers had looked to cast skaters or players first and actors second (as Stallone did when casting the opponent for ROCKY 3; he sought a tough, mean-looking guy whom he could train to act rather than an actor whom he’d have to train to fight). But for whatever reason, the game footage (all created anew … they don’t use archive images even for Al Michaels’ famous countdown) is very good and convincing. The actors are actually skating in the frame, and the camera gets on the ice along with them, and follows the action.
One of the things I hate about a lot of sports movies is that they never get the sport even passably right. Compare MIRACLE to something like BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, where it was clear that director Gurinder Chadha didn’t even understand the game well enough to choreograph an actual scene of the sport or give any sense of a game’s flow. (I ‘loved’ the moment when the manager actually held up the score with his fingers after a goal, I guess to explain to those in the audience the intricate complications of soccer scoring.) Apart from the opening fantasy scene, there was not in BECKHAM a single moment of action, not even a shot, that was even marginally convincing. The keepers always dove the wrong way when the ball is kicked right at them, which looks good but has nothing to do with the game … like when a fighter’s head always snaps back vigorously and arms go flying every time he takes a punch to the head. The shots in BECKHAM were so short and the sequences so heavily edited, and with so much extraneous moving about [and helpfully obscuring in the foreground], that it seemed designed to hide the fact that BECKHAM’s actors had no chops as athletes. Not MIRACLE. Some of the individual moments *are* of the edited-together “he shoots, he scores” genre, but there were several shots that lasted long enough and they were framed sufficiently clearly that they resembled something like the flow of an actual hockey game. It felt like many lasted as long as 15 or 20 seconds, which doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t, compared to the real thing, obviously), but compared to 3 or 4 seconds per shot, it *feels* so different in terms of verissimilute and “not cheating by editing.”
In addition, I wasn’t as bothered as I might have been by the sports-movie cliche of “Underdog David slays Goliath” (which is almost never the case; even when underdogs win, it’s usually “underdogs” at the same level, like the Marlins winning the World Series. Nothing like the raw talent gap as it was here). If ever there was a real-life sports contest that followed that template, it was this one. The Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas title fight is the only thing in my lifetime that comes close in terms of a sheer unexpected upset. And even there, nobody doubted that Douglas was a world-class fighter and a legit-contender in some abstract sense; it was just that Tyson was thought to be invincible. But at the same time, MIRACLE doesn’t go overboard. The team won because of strategy and hard work — as most teams do. There’s was a lot of the political backstory (the malaise speech, the second oil shock, Iran’s invasion of the US, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all came in the previous 12 months) as there has to be. But it isn’t presented as the reason they won, but rather and more-reasonably the reason their victory mattered (thanks, Bilge) — a momentous sports victory as a lifting of national morale.
The always-underestimated Kurt Russell is also terrific in the role of coach Brooks. He nails the Minnesota accent perfectly (as my Minnesota-born-friend pointed out), but also got something a little more elusive. There’s a certain taskmaster hardness in the coach’s persona — the sorta tight-jaw-and-cheeks look. It’s so contrary to Russell in real life that it surprised me more that he got it right — it’s like he’s chewing on bubble gum with the texture of rubber.
MIRACLE is not a great film — in fact if you go in with too-high or the wrong expectations, you might be disappointed. The score is overbombastic and redundant, underlining all the significant moments with what it imagines as Aaron Copeland grandeur. It doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t expect (obviously, it couldn’t, but still …) We also get another example of the Wife Complaining About Being Neglected At Home But Is In The Crowd For The Final Showdown. This role cannot be played because it is thoroughly cliche and dramatically redundant. And I will not mention the way the malaise speech was used on account of I think Josh still reads this blog (and congratulations bud).
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