Thursday, February 06, 2014

Re-creating a Miracle

"[N]ow that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get to dream. But on one weekend, as America and the world watched, a group of remarkable young men gave the nation what it needed most — a chance, for one night, not only to dream, but a chance, once again, to believe."

Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell)

All my life, I have told people that the book is better than the movie — any book, any movie.

The same is true, I suppose, of movies that are based on real events.

It certainly was true of the gold–medal winning U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980. I am not a hockey fan, but I will never forget the thrill of seeing the U.S. topple the mighty Soviets on that February day in 1980.

By the time I saw "Miracle," which premiered 10 years ago today, I had reached certain conclusions. For one, I believed it was impossible to duplicate dramatic sports moments like that, and, for the most part, that is true. I didn't believe that just because of the 1980 U.S. hockey team's triumph, although that did support my conclusion. But "Miracle" did manage to give viewers a sense of what the experience was like.

The story itself was so preposterous that it had to be the product of a creative mind. The American hockey team goes into the Olympics a few days after being thoroughly dominated by the Soviet team — and minus a player who was injured against the Soviets — and goes on to win the gold medal.

That U.S. hockey team overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a rematch with the Soviets.

Kurt Russell, as coach Herb Brooks, was inspiring — but I never truly figured out if that was because his performance really was inspiring or because I already knew how the story ended and I was inspired by what I knew Brooks had accomplished. (I do have my suspicions.)

I couldn't help wondering if anyone could have played Herb Brooks and been inspiring. I mean, with that kind of material, how could you go wrong?

But then I realized that really wasn't the right way to look at it. The story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team was the story of the coach. The gold medal was the culmination of his vision.

(OK, I'll admit that I am influenced now by my own experience as a teacher.)

Patricia Clarkson — a very talented actress — played Brooks' wife and was good with what she had, but hers was a small role. I don't know how much she influenced that hockey team, but there were clear indications that the marriage was a solid partnership. I'm sure Patti Brooks played more of a role in the development of the team than was suggested — but to establish it in the film might have made it impossibly long for most moviegoers.

I think the best decision that was made by those who put the movie together was to cast unknowns in the roles of the hockey players. Using famous young actors would have distracted too much from the story.

Besides, none of the hockey players was a household name before the Winter Olympics. Neither was Brooks. It was appropriate that unknowns accomplished on film what unknowns accomplished on the ice a quarter of a century earlier.

There were no expectations for the U.S. hockey team that February. In his playing days, Brooks had been dropped from the '60 gold medal–winning team just prior to the Olympics. It is safe to say there were no expectations for him, either, even though he coached the University of Minnesota to three national championships.

When the U.S. won the gold medal, the reaction was unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. "Miracle" did a remarkable job of recapturing that.

"Great moments are born from great opportunity."

Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell)

I don't know if Brooks' inspiring locker–room speech really happened. If it didn't, it should have, I suppose. Any good sports movie needs that motivational speech that — supposedly — gives the team that one final advantage that makes the difference between winning and losing.

Maybe that no–name squad needed that emotional boost just before taking on the mighty Soviets who had humbled them in an Olympic warmup less than a month earlier. Maybe the team just came together at the right time and didn't really need any more motivation that night.

But in a story that sounds too good to be true (except that it was true), if the writers made up Brooks' speech, they did a good job of what had to be done — making it a plausible part of a totally implausible story.

They justified their paychecks ...

... and inspired a generation of moviegoers.