Thin Ice

Movie: Miracle

Our Rating: 2.00

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the only way for America to find its emotional footing in the war on terror is for Al Qaeda to start fielding some Olympic teams. Consider Walt Disney Pictures' "Miracle," a breast-beating chronicle of our 1980 hockey victory over the Russkies. The movie reeks with nostalgic yearning for an era in which we could confront our enemies on terms we understood: by "beating their jockstraps off and letting the team point totals tell the story," as a "Doonesbury" strip of the period put it.

Yes, this is material tailor-made for audiences whose concept of intersocietal conflict is dictated by the Franklin Mint. Luckily for Disney, they're the same sort of mongoloids who will not only shower a dramatized sporting event with the same soda-spilling ardor they hold for the real thing, but can even extend the courtesy to a simulation of a real-life game whose outcome they've known for 24 years. "U.S.A! U.S.A!" What?

Recall without reflection is the movie's guiding principle, beginning with an opening-credits sequence that seeks to recap every significant news story of the 1970s -- thus laying the emotional groundwork for the alleged national renewal that flowed from our rapturous victory over the "unbeatable" Commie team. (Our subsequent defeat of Finland, which actually won us the gold, was pretty hot stuff, too. But the movie doesn't bother with restaging that game, ostensibly because the Finnish never invaded Afghanistan.) If you're too young to re-member the 1970s, the headline-skimming preamble will sail over your head; if you were alive back then, you don't need it in the first place. We're off to a rousing start.

As this montage-happy film continues, current-events sound bites keep intruding on the main story, in which coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) turns a (you guessed it) ragtag team of misfits into a "family" of winners. At one point, the arrival of the holiday season has put the coach in an especially pensive mood, so he drives around the snow-capped streets of his neighborhood in silence while Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech plays on the car radio. The inconvenience of this speech having actually been delivered in the middle of July is explained away in a novel fashion: The station is replaying the great news broadcasts of the year, presumably in their entirety. That's funny; whenever I turn on the radio between Christmas and New Year's Day, all I get is a rundown of the top 500 album-rock tracks of all time.

Even if you know nothing about the actual history of the 1980 team, you'll find it easy to predict 95 percent of what transpires in "Miracle" (working title: "Every Goddamn Sports Movie You've Ever Seen"). There's no love lost between the no-nonsense Brooks and his players as he uses the Soviet Union's skating strategies to America's advantage; meanwhile, his devotion to the cause puts an unhealthy strain on his relationship with his family (including a slumming Patricia Clarkson as his wife). Yawn. But only a veteran Sports Illustrated subscriber could make much of the one-on-one confrontations between Brooks and his young charges, who are presented as mere repositories for Screenwriting 101 character attributes (dead mother, attitude problem, etc.). In the silliest moment, Brooks makes a point about cooperation by allowing two of the quarreling players to pummel each other bloody, then stops their practice session cold with the leading question, "Look like hockey to you?" Well, yes it does, in fact. Exactly.

Russell's inherent watchability keeps poking through the veil of cheese, transcending the standard image of the sports coach as an antisocial victim of bad hair and too much plaid. (He must feel that he owes something to Disney, having cut his teeth as their computer that wore tennis shoes.) When he's the focus of a scene, the movie almost becomes a credible bit of fiction. The actual games, though, are overedited to the point of incomprehensibility, their dramatic flow sacrificed to stand-alone moments designed to make us stand up and cheer.

The overall effect of this artless manipulation puts me in ideological lockstep with a moviegoer I talked to a few months ago, who opined that the plot of "The Haunted Mansion" was "too Disney." A Disney movie based on a Disney theme-park attraction, and it's too Disney? Who would foresee such a thing? I guess I'd be a fool to expect better from "Disney's Olympic Hockey." Or maybe it's just the implied overkill I object to, since they already have the Mighty Ducks. Still, "Michael Eisner's Al Qaeda Downhill Challenge" is something I look forward to living without.

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