“When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back.”
Skip’s rating: In a move that Hollywood has ignored ever since, Gavin O’Connor brilliantly chose his cast from actual hockey players. Surprisingly, this makes for (in my opinion) the best sports movie of all time.
Skip’s review: I recently came across Mike Eruzione’s 2020 memoir The Making of a Miracle, which reinvigorated my interest in the 1980 Olympics. As a child of the ’90s, I promise this is not a sentiment you will likely hear from my peers. That is, unless they’ve seen the cinematic masterpiece that is Miracle.
I am likely not the best person to critique sports films. Yes, I do watch opening day baseball religiously, but I trail off after watching the Cincinnati Reds make a mockery of the sport every year. My walls are not adorned with the likenesses of sports greats like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky. Rather, they are lined with my collection of 275 Star Trek novels (none of which are canon).
Realizing my high opinion of this film may be the minority, I decided to test my hypothesis regarding the greatness of Gavin O’Connor’s magnum opus. I posited the question to the one person I know who considers sporting events to hold the same importance as a Sunday church service — my brother.
“What is your all-time favorite sports film?”
I waited near my phone for his reply. It was a tough question. On Disney+ alone you had The Sandlot, Remember The Titans, and all three Mighty Ducks films. Also jockeying for position were grittier adult films like Varsity Blues and Bull Durham. Yet, I was not surprised when his answer finally came back.
I was elated to know that someone else loved this movie as much as I did. Now that I had his answer, I only had one more question. Why?
Miracle is the story of the 1980 United States hockey team. But more importantly, it’s the story of Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), a successful college hockey coach who aspires to do the impossible — beat the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympic Games. This is not an easy task, as Herb knows very well. As the last player cut from the 1960 US Olympic hockey team, he got to watch the US beat the Soviets at Squaw Valley from his couch. Then, over the next twenty years, he got to watch them never beat the Soviets again.
Herb’s plan to achieve his goal centers around one core concept: All-Star teams lose, so he would have to build a team from scratch. Picking his team from amateur players across the country, Herb plans to construct a group that will rely more on chemistry and conditioning than raw individual talent.
Backed by his trusty sidekick — I mean, uh, his assistant coach Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) — and with the eventual blessing of his wife Patty (the always lovely Patricia Clarkson, just six years after her role as Ally Sheedy’s meth’d out love interest in High Art), Herb puts together a team of players who many know by name now but who were virtually unknown in 1979.
What follows is an almost shot-for-shot reproduction of the events which led up to the “Miracle on Ice.” There are a few embellishments because Hollywood can’t live without drama and no one wants to watch hockey players just… being hockey players. For the most part though, the events in the film line up fairly closely with the events as told in memoirs like Eruzione’s. Injured players. Locker room outbursts. Even Herb’s putridly preposterous pants are accurate to real life.
And that is where we find the key to our mystery. So why is Miracle the best sports film ever made? Because it’s real.
Gavin O’Connor went to painstaking lengths to make this film as accurate as possible. In Mike Eruzione’s memoir, he talks about being a consultant on 1981’s Miracle on Ice and having to push actors into the camera shot because they couldn’t ice skate. Miracle got around this by hiring real hockey players, as O’Connor rightly assumed it would be easier to teach hockey players to act than it would be to teach actors to play a sport at an elite level.
Watching these events unfold in just over two hours, we’re reminded of why the 1980 US Olympic hockey team captured the imagination of the nation 24 years before this film’s release. Herb Brooks took this group of nobodies and turned them into the greatest hockey team in the world. Forget Rocky. This is the greatest underdog story of all time because it actually happened.
Clare’s rating: It’s a movie where a guy in a hockey mask plays a pivotal role, but nobody gets slung by their feet head long into a tree in a sleeping bag and nobody gets skewered by a harpoon while napping in a hammock. It’s weird…
Clare’s review: I think this movie might be really sappy and overly hokey and potentially really lame.
Here’s the problem though. I grew up 45 minutes north of Lake Placid. I spent large sections of my childhood there. I was 6 years old when the US won the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics by, among other things, doing the impossible and beating the USSR in a game that many consider to be one of the most amazing moments in our collective sports history. And I remember very clearly just how INSANE everyone I knew went when it happened.
Since then, I’ve seen the game this movie’s based on a bunch of times. I know a lot of the players by name, like I grew up hearing stories about them as though they’re friends of some invisible older brother I never had. So I knew when I heard about Miracle being made, that I’d have to skip it in theaters and watch it all alone on DVD so I could turn into the big blubbering nostalgic mess I knew this film would reduce me to. And I have to say, I was in no way disappointed. Whether or not it will have anything close to the same effect on anybody else… is irrelevant in a lot of ways actually.
I grew up in hockey country. I knew guys who could skate backwards right around the same age that they learned how to stand upright and walk. I knew guys who lived their whole lives playing hockey with a deeply vetted desire to go to the Olympics some day based solely on having seen the game this movie is based on when they were growing up. So I was really happy to see how hard the filmmakers of Miracle worked to accurately depict a lot of really key elements of these normal, young guys’ experience pursuing an age old, seemingly impossible goal. I grew up feeling like even if I didn’t actually know any of them, in some ways, I absolutely did. Because what they were able to do in one game lived in the hearts and minds of the kids I grew up with who would spend every night after school working tirelessly on speed drills and running formations, hoping one day to come anywhere close to living through a game like the one they’d heard about and watched ceaselessly that happened in their back yard at the Olympics.
So yeah. Miracle has all sorts of inspiring sports speeches and the requisite team building trials. Grueling practices. Male bonding. Funny accents. Swells of music. Slow-motion shots of key plays. Voice over work from announcers so you can follow the action. Bad hair cuts. Injuries and the drama of “will they let him play in the big game or not?!?” more than once. None of it is at all groundbreaking. But I still loved it. I recognize that my judgement isn’t based on reason though. It’s based on my sense of belonging to that game somehow and belonging to where it happened, when it happened.
But I have another sense that, as a country, at the time that it happened, we ALL belonged to that game and those boys who played and won as team USA all belonged to our home town. So maybe there’s a good chance that Miracle will turn you into a nostalgic weeping freak just as readily as it did for me. Who knows? Give it a shot and see what happens.
- Herb Brooks was able to serve as a consultant on the film, though he died in a car accident shortly following principal photography (as is stated at the end of the film).
- Al Michaels was asked to reproduce his original play-by-play broadcast of the film, which is faithful to the real thing. Knowing they couldn’t reproduce the frenzy of the live call, the final seconds of audio (including the famous “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”) are from the 1980 broadcast.
- Buzz Schneider is portrayed by his son, Billy Schneider, which the filmmakers did not realize until after casting him.
- Not-so-fun fact: Michael Mantenuto (Jack O’Callahan) joined the U.S. Army and served as a member of the Green Berets before committing suicide in 2017.
- “I got a telegram from a lady in Texas today, and you know what it said?” “What?” “Beat those commie bastards.”