`Miracle' counteracts today's ugly sports reality

February 16, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

THE NEWSPAPER was full of everything that makes big-time sports so shabby: a steroid scandal, rape charges stemming from a party for college football recruits, another solid-citizen basketball player pleading guilty to choking his girlfriend.

It seemed like a good time to go see Miracle, the new Disney movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and its stirring, against-all-odds win over the powerful Soviet Union squad on the way to the gold medal.

So I plunked down my eight bucks and, sitting there in the darkened theater with a tub of popcorn the size of a wastebasket, I remembered what it is that can make sports so uplifting.

Do yourself a favor: Go see Miracle.

If you love sports, if you root for the underdog, if you go for all that never-say-die, where-there's-a-will, there's-a-way stuff, go see this movie.

If you want to remember back to when this country, demoralized by inflation, long gas lines and the frightening takeover of our embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis, was galvanized by the exploits of a bunch of rosy-cheeked college kids in Lake Placid, N.Y., go see this movie.

Kurt Russell is incredible in the role of the obsessed, autocratic U.S. coach Herb Brooks, down to the grating Minnesota accent that would make you want to kick Garrison Keillor down a flight of steps.

It is a subtle, nuanced performance - well, if you don't count the hideously loud plaid sport coats and pants Russell wears, reinforcing how adrift America truly was back then.

Brooks, who died in a car accident last summer, put the U.S. team through hell in preparation for the Winter Games: six months of punishing conditioning drills, rigorous tune-up games, brow-beating, head games and constant threats to cut them loose and send them home.

He pushed and wheedled and cajoled his players to excel, and to meld as a unit.

When they did, they produced one of the biggest upsets in all of sports history.

As to why 20 young men would put up with so much physical punishment and mental anguish, the film answers that over and over again: They loved hockey.

They loved competing.

They played for all that corny stuff: pride and personal satisfaction and a chance to represent their country, not for multimillion-dollar contracts and big endorsement deals.

I know, I know ... what a bunch of saps, right?

So why do all the members of that 1980 U.S. team - now successful businessmen, hockey coaches, professionals, etc. - still consider it the defining experience of their lives all these years later?

If the story line alone doesn't grab you, you should also know this: The hockey scenes in Miracle are some of the most realistic sports scenes you'll ever see in a movie.

Instead of putting actors on skates and handing them hockey sticks and having the action sequences turn into something from The Mighty Ducks, real hockey players did the passing and shooting and body-checking.

This alone elevates Miracle to the top of the list of sports movies, which tend to regard realism on the field, court or ice as an afterthought.

History is littered with so many sad examples of this, it's hard to know where to begin.

Has there ever been a human being who looked less like a baseball player than doughy William Bendix swinging a bat in The Babe Ruth Story?

Was it possible to do anything but cringe watching Robbie Benson dribble a basketball or make a lay-up in One on One?

And was there ever a moment when you watched Ryan O'Neal playing boxer Kid Natural in The Main Event and thought: Sure, he looks like a broken-down pug who's taken a ton of head and body shots?

Um, no, I don't think so.

Then there was The Legend of Bagger Vance, one of the worst sports movies ever made, in which Matt Damon plays a Georgia amateur golf legend, even though he swings a club like a man trying to kill ants with a broomstick.

And if you want to believe that Keanu Reeves moved like a real pro quarterback in The Replacements, that is certainly your prerogative, although I would urge you to return to real life at some point.

But there is none of that in Miracle, where former pro and college hockey players replicate the action of that electrifying game 24 years ago, when the scrappy U.S. Olympians pulled off the upset of the ages.

When the movie was over and the lights came on, I felt a little better about sports - and life, too.

But that only lasted until the 11 o'clock news.

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