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Review: Olympic hockey film 'Miracle' a winner

Solid performances, compelling story

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Kurt Russell, as Coach Herb Brooks, diagrams a play for the U.S. Olympic hockey team in "Miracle."

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(CNN) -- The new Disney movie "Miracle" may blatantly manipulate your emotions -- but it's still inspirational and completely compelling.

This true story about the U.S. hockey team that beat the unbeatable Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games has all the ingredients for your classic David and Goliath story, and director Gavin O'Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim work it from every angle.

But what makes "Miracle" so good -- and so accessible, even to non-sports fans -- is the way the story is framed in the political and social context of its time.

The Cold War was still raging, the hostages were in Iran, embargoes caused long lines at gas stations, interest rates were high, and Americans needed something to believe in. This Cinderella team of college kids gave the country a reason to stand up and cheer.

Today, this time frame offers a feeling of nostalgia. In the aftermath of September 11, the world feels like an even more hostile and uncertain place than during the Cold War, so a lot of "Miracle's" appeal is that it takes us back to a time when things were more black and white -- us against them.

Shooting for gold

Kurt Russell is wonderful as Herb Brooks, who 20 years earlier had been the last player dropped from the 1960 American hockey team -- a team that went on to win the gold medal. Now he gets another shot at the gold -- this time as a coach.

The players hit the ice in "Miracle."

Brooks' plan was to rethink the way the U.S. team approached the game, from top to bottom. He threw away the game plans used in the NHL and at colleges across the nation. In just six months, he took 20 guys from all over the country and molded them into a well-oiled unit, a team playing in a way tailor-made to defeat the Soviets.

The majority of the cast are unknowns. Gavin made a great move when he decided to cast hockey players and teach them to act, rather than the other way around. Most of the 11 Americans and nine Canadians cast as the U.S. team aren't rookies, having played hockey at the college level or even professionally. They all do a very respectful job as actors, while bringing great authenticity to the many hockey scenes featured in the film.

At the heart of this dramatic story is the way Brooks got these young men to believe in the impossible. The Soviet team was a top-notch, veteran group. Compared to the U.S. team, the Soviets were bigger, stronger, and more seasoned; many of them had played together for 15 years.

But Brooks pushed his team to perform at a level beyond their skills and even beyond their wildest dreams. He was incredibly tough, driving his players to edge of their endurance, but the result was seen by many as nothing short of a miracle.

A valentine to the medalists

The movie isn't just about Brooks and his players. Also pivotal to this story is the Brooks' wife, Patty, whom Academy Award nominee Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April") plays to perfection.

Noah Emmerich ("The Truman Show") does a great job as assistant coach Craig Patrick, the "good cop" to Brooks' "bad cop."

Overall, "Miracle" is the first really good movie of 2004. It's a well-executed valentine to the members of the 1980 hockey team, many of whom were consultants on the movie.

Tragically, Herb Brooks died in a car accident shortly after principal photography was completed. "Miracle" serves as a fitting epitaph for the man behind one of the greatest feats in U.S. Olympic history.

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