As Herb Brooks, the coach who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to victory over the justly favored Soviets and an eventual gold medal, Kurt Russell seizes on the role of a lifetime and gives a performance so robust and true, so acute in its depiction of a complex, brilliant character and so immense in its understated sympathy that it brings new meaning to the overused word "inspirational."
Although Miracle leads with satisfying tension to the showdown with the Soviets at Lake Placid, it isn't a conventional sports movie. It's a profile in command and motivation - what the elder Bush cheaply called "the vision thing."
Director Gavin O'Connor shapes the movie around Brooks' vision and shows how crucial that "thing" really is. Miracle starts when this clipped Minnesotan with the bad hairdo and blunt manner interviews for the coaching job and argues for an American squad that would combine Canadian and Soviet hockey styles into a formidable union of speed, stamina, creativity and teamwork. It ends when he sees his vision come to fruition against Soviet hockey luminaries who have played together and dominated Olympic competition for two decades.
What comes in between is a portrait of a man making his dream manifest as much as any artist or writer, editor or general worth his salt - a man who pours his ferocious appetite for invention and achievement into the formation of a dream team.
You don't need to love hockey to love Miracle. O'Connor and his screenwriter, Eric Guggenheim, key viewers' perceptions to Brooks' mental processing of the sport and its demands, so everything about training for endurance, honing reflexes, perceiving and owning the open ice - and sharing it with teammates - becomes rock-crystal clear.
It's tempting to compare Brooks to decisive wartime leaders like Gen. George S. Patton. But that comparison makes Brooks seem too bellicose. Brooks had the imagination to bring the country a fresh definition of sporting glory. For him, individual talent was nothing outside the group. He was determined to get his players to fulfill themselves and his plans for Team USA.
The movie places Brooks' struggle not just in the middle of an American hockey slump but during the tailspin of American confidence after Vietnam and Watergate and the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis - as well as smaller insults to national pride like gas rationing. After all, it was the performance of Brooks' team that sparked the beginning of that aggressive three-syllable cheer, "U-S-A!"
The moviemakers get the balance right. They even have the guts to replay President Carter's infamous "malaise" speech - which now sounds more like a pep talk than a lament - and use it as a prod for Brooks.
Brooks wants young Americans to know they can get the better of the best: He views the Soviets as competitors, not "Commies." To serve that goal he puts his own credibility on the line. He demands the freedom to pick the right players, not the greatest players, without the interference of advisory boards, and to push them to their limits despite the cautions of his second-in-command (Noah Emmerich) and the team medic (Kenneth Welsh). They can be the buddies; he's the boss.
The Brooks of this movie would never say anything so grandiose as "God is in the details," but he proves it day by day, whether ruthlessly conditioning his players or insisting they comprehend strategies that resemble complicated weather patterns. At the same time, Brooks is never a prisoner to details. He takes the unusual step of handing his young men a written psychological test - but when Brooks' pick for goalie, Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), refuses to take it, Brooks decides that Craig's denial tells him all he needs to know. He's in.
Brooks assumes an Olympian stance in more ways than one. He sets himself up as a ruler from on high so that these players from rival college teams and diverse circumstances will unite in anger against him. And Russell proves his formidable mettle once and for all in the way he gets inside of this deliberately bottled-up character. The actor is such an ace at expressing unspoken thoughts and feelings that the movie develops an inexorable emotional build.
You sense what it costs Brooks to sacrifice his family life in the months leading up to the Lake Placid games. That's partly because Patricia Clarkson is splendid in her too-few scenes as Brooks' wife, embodying the tested love of a wife who isn't afraid to express everything, even if she's relegated to the supportive role of the genius' spouse. She's the one who questions whether Brooks is trying to relive his own history of 20 years before, when he was the final man cut from the last American hockey team to win gold at the Olympics.
Russell can be astonishingly subtle: He demonstrates how Brooks couldn't help having some of his tenderness spill out, as when he comes close to embracing an injured player before pulling back. Russell finds the furrows in the Fargo accent - the way its odd, brutal lilt gives a man like Brooks some verbal cover for his passion and compassion. When Brooks unleashes his hopes for the team before the game with the Soviets, he delivers a speech so original and eloquent that the players must try living up to it. Brooks tells his players that even if the Soviet team could beat them nine times out of 10, now it's their time - and they must go out and take it. The faith and trust between coach and team is palpable.
Russell's conviction is so total that it tingles the spines of the audience. It's impossible to know what's more heart-rending: his fierce honesty before the victory, or his solitary implosion after it. With Miracle, it's Russell's time, and he fills it like a champ.
Starring Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson and Noah Emmerich
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Released by Disney
Time 135 minutes