[Screen It]

(2004) (Kurt Russell, Eddie Cahill) (PG)

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Drama: A hockey coach sets out to train his team of amateurs for the 1980 Olympics and a possible match with the feared and formidable Russian squad.
It's 1980 and Minnesota hockey coach Herb Brooks (KURT RUSSELL) has been tapped to lead the American team into the Olympic Games to be held in Lake Placid, NY. Saying good-bye to wife Patti (PATRICIA CLARKSON) and their kids, Herb sets off for Colorado Springs where he's to select those who will try out for the team.

Among them is goalie Jim Craig (EDDIE CAHILL), Jack O'Callahan (MICHAEL MANTENUTO), Robbie McClanahan (NATHAN WEST), Mark Johnson (ERIC PETER-KAISER), Buzz Schneider (BILLY SCHNEIDER) and Mike Eruzione (PATRICK O'BRIEN DEMSEY) who's eventually named team captain.

With the help of assistant coach Craig Patrick (NOAH EMMERICH) and team physician Doc Nagobads (KENNETH WELSH), Herb sets out to mold the individuals into a well-disciplined and physically fit team. As the games begin, Herb pushes his team as hard as he can in hopes that they might be able to defeat the feared and seemingly unbeatable Soviet team.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While there are all sorts of memorable events in most everyone's lives, it often seems that the old axiom of "the more, the merrier" holds true for such matters. That's particularly valid for sporting events that people witness in person or just on TV.

They're obviously communal events, but some of them become defining moments in people's lives and even entire cultures. That's never been more true - at least for Americans - than with the unexpected but entirely welcomed surprise victory of the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Olympic Games.

That's back when the U.S. - and other countries - could field just amateur athletes in the event compared to the Soviets who entered what was for all intent purposes a professional and presumably unbeatable team.

That true, underdog story now makes it onto the big screen in "Miracle," a drawn-out and not always as involving as it should be drama. Named after commentator Al Michaels' end of the match exclamation, "Do you believe in miracles?" the film features some solid hockey recreations and a good performance by Kurt Russell as legendary coach Herb Brooks (who unexpectedly died before completion of the film).

At 135-some minutes, though, the film is simply too long in following the journey of the coach and his team from initial tryouts through scene after scene of practice and then finally the big, culminating event. Hockey fans and those old enough to appreciate the match might be more forgiving of the slow pace and length, but the same might not hold true for some younger viewers with little taste for history and who possess a different degree of patriotism.

Working from a screenplay by Eric Guggenheim (making his debut) that follows the basic story and may or may not take artistic liberties with the smaller details, director Gavin O'Connor ("Tumbleweeds") has delivered a film that almost feels as if it were made in the era that it depicts. That's not only due to the rather benign content and (thankfully) less than flashy visuals, but also because of the sense of worldly matters beyond the confines of the story.

That said, he does go a bit overboard with footage and talk of the events and overall historical backdrop of the story (after all, do we really need to dredge up memories of Billy - Carter -- Beer?). While some of that's necessary to remind viewers of the "feel good" context of what transpired among otherwise gloomy national and worldly events, a little of that goes a long way and the point is made early (and often).

For those reasons and more, the film disappointingly feels rather flat from the get-go up until some of the actual matches. It doesn't help that it follows the formula of many a "coach and his team" dramas or that - given that it's a true story - everything is obviously predictable.

Then there's the fact that many of the players, with their period attire and haircuts, are barely personified or even differentiated from one another until well after the midway point. Since that's a predicament faced by most other sports films that feature large numbers of players - and thus cast members - the fault obviously lies with the filmmakers and their handling of the material.

Despite such problems, those embodying the characters - including Eddie Cahill (making his feature debut) and Patrick O'Brien Demsey (ditto) - are generally good in their roles, while newcomer Billy Schneider actually plays the role of his father, Buzz.

The story, of course, is just as much or more about the coach, and Russell ("Dark Blue," "Vanilla Sky") delivers a credible performance and then some. I don't know how accurate the portrayal is, but the actor is completely believable in the part.

Noah Emmerich ("Beyond Borders," "Windtalkers") is decent as the assistant coach who isn't sure of his boss' technique and strategy. Yet, Patricia Clarkson ("Pieces of April," "The Station Agent") doesn't get much of a chance or time to do much more than play the stereotypical coach's wife who's supportive but has the standard confrontational moment with her hubby.

Given my fond remembrance of the actual event that - shock of all shocks - occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago - I really wanted to like and be swept away by this film. That's even recognizing the potential inherent problems I figured it would likely contain. Alas, I didn't imagine that excessive length and an overall flatness would be two of them.

If not for Russell's performance and the actual hockey matches, this would have been a rather tedious affair for non-diehard fans. Needing a few more passes through the editing booth and an injection of cinematic energy, magic or a dose of its titular namesake, "Miracle" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 15, 2004 / Posted February 6, 2004

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