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Photograph by Chris Lange

Rink of Dreams: Kurt Russell outlines a play for his plucky ice hockey team in 'Miracle.'

Puck Everlasting

Kurt Russell saves ice hockey drama 'Miracle' from its flag-waving excesses

By Richard von Busack

ON ONE LEVEL, Miracle is a rousing sports picture and likely the best-edited ice hockey picture ever made. It sweeps you up into the game with its wizardly cutting and camera work. Ice hockey is an ungainly, bruising sport--the skates speed up the impact of the tackles, but director Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) manages to get between the players and to keep your eye on the almost invisible puck as it caroms around the ice. And Kurt Russell is marvelous as the Vince Lombardian coach of the 1980 U.S. Ice Hockey team: the late Herb Brooks.

He tames the egos of a team rife with regional jealousies and egos; he's a harsh bastard, with ice-sharp Minnesota curtness in his voice. Russell plays Brooks as square as square can be: with bottled-up seriousness, a clownlike Beatle haircut and the violently plaid polyester pants and dung-colored blazers of the era. Yet Brooks is never, for a minute, a matter of mirth. In the touchy relations with his wife (Patricia Clarkson, smartly cast), we see the cost of his prickliness and obsessions. I love that his moment of triumph is a moment of solitude; it takes place in a corner of the arena, where he crouches, exhausted by victory.

Still, this shot-in-Canada flag waver is kind of a crock. It envisions the Olympic triumph as a nationalist face-saving. Like Seabiscuit, Miracle proposes the victory of the sports team as a victory over national despair. The title montage brings back the defeats of the 1970s--Watergate, inflation, the gas crisis. Miracle's intentions are clear in the ad campaign, where the title is digitally scrambled: Miracle is a sort-of anagram for America.

When--at least since the end of World War II--could the United States of America be seriously thought of as an underdog? One scene has Jimmy Carter delivering his "malaise speech" in voiceover as the team roughhouses in the snow. It's Carter telling us what we learned from the 1970s. Now, in 2004, what Carter said all seems like what we failed to learn and what we've been told it was our patriotic duty to forget. The movie celebrates what the elder Bush meant as "the vision thing"--an insistence on spectacle over reality. As a friend puts it, Reagan's victory in 1980 was like going to a high school that the jocks took over. In the economy, in international relations and particularly in the movies, the tunnel-vision rhetoric of sports coaches came to dominate so many aspects of American life.

But whenever Miracle threatens to become alienatingly jingoistic, Russell brings a counterpoint to the action. His tight, inspired portrayal of a coach's gravity and loneliness is honorable work. To play Brooks' opponent, the Russian coach, director O'Connor hired an actor who looks exactly like Dracula. But then Russell cuts through the good Yanks/bad Russians scheme, by shouting to his rival, waving, trying to communicate something important through panes of Plexiglas. The bellowing crowd may think the triumph is about USA, but Russell insists that his coach was right: it's all about the importance of the game itself.

Miracle (PG; 136 min.), directed by Gavin O'Connor, written by Eric Guggenheim, photographed by Daniel Stoloff and starring Kurt Russell and Patricia Clarkson, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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