A Happy 10th to Miracle, the Best Sports Movie of the Last Ten Years

Need we say more? (via)

As we here at GWW reflected on the Red Sox fantastic 2013 campaign, we realized that October 2014 will mark ten years since our beloved BoSox broke the Curse in the fateful fall of 2004. As a result, we felt old. In an attempt to feel even older, we will from time to time remember other favorites celebrating their tin anniversary in 2014. Remember, the next ten years could be even better, but don’t get your hopes up.
On February 6th, Miracle will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Yes, I know I know, the movie itself depicts events that happened even longer ago, but bear with us. With the Olympics nearing, the movie of course crossed my mind, and I got to thinking: is Miracle the best sports movie of the last ten years?

Yes, I would argue. (Sadly, Bend it Like Beckham was released in 2003, outside the timeframe. Sorry, Keira.)



Despite other triumphs such as Friday Night Lights, the woefully underrated Glory Road, and Coach Carter, I am confident in my declaration. FNL, especially in its original book form, is as much about the Texas towns that football consumes as the players and games taking place on the field. Great movie? Absolutely, but as much due to its mournful glimpse into the religion of football as the games themselves. As for the two racially charged, redemptive basketball stories, both capture the coming together of individuals we the audience love to witness, but neither feels big enough to supplant our 1980 hockey heroes. Glory Road perhaps suffers from its story’s own underappreciatedness, the incredible Texas Western run swept under the rug during the season and sadly unknown to many as time wears on. Coach Carter proves powerful upon each weekend rewatching, and I have no qualms with the movie, though at times the in-game action plays too manufactured for my liking (Please don’t hurt me, Mr. Samuel L.). Mainly, it had no chance to beat out Miracle because of its lesser magnitude: a coach turning his boys into men versus a coach turning his boys into men and a team uplifting a nation proves to be a mismatch on paper and on the big screen.



So why does Miracle work? What places the film squarely and solidly atop my list?



Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim were gifted one of the great sports stories of all time. While this sounds like a blessing, messing up an already perfect moment would not have taken much. More than just the victory over the Soviets itself, the way each team played leading up to and in the medal-round matchup really did set up the American victory as the greatest upset of the 20th century. The Soviets had outscored opponents 55-11 in group play and in fact had beaten the Americans 10-3 earlier that month. A team that had dominated internationally for decades against the youngest American team in history was expected to be a blowout, a simple prelude to the Soviets’ subsequent gold-medal effort. Even the climactic game itself aided the film, ripe with tension and dramatic plays, from Mark Johnson’s buzzer-beating goal, which is perhaps more unbelievable in its actual form, (skip to :40) to end the first period to Mike Eruzione’s game-winner (1:25 of the prior link. Prepare for chills.).



So what did the film do right? How did it manage to build on an already perfect sports moment?



Miracle did not shatter any box-office records, pulling just shy of $20 million on its opening weekend and grossing a touch over $64 million domestically overall. Armed with Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, and a bunch of people you probably hadn’t heard of, the movie did not exactly scream “Blockbuster.” But that’s why it worked.



O’Connor somewhat famously chose to use real hockey players, trusting that having them act would be easier than getting actors to play hockey. As a result, the game sequences are lively and raw, realistic down to the old-school equipment with which the players had to train to adapt. Moreover, using these unheard of players meant a lack of starpower, a dearth of sexiness to the roster, just as had been the case for the actual 1980 team! Filled with many of Herb Brooks’ Minnesota players along with Boston University standouts and other college players, the team was comprised of no-names. This was in stark contrast to the Soviets, armed to the teeth with future Hockey Hall of Famers Vladislav Tretiak, Viacheslav Fetisov, and Valeri Kharlamov, not to mention the movie’s stone-faced antagonist, Boris Mikhailov.

Likewise in the film and actual events, coach Herb Brooks was the face of the operation. Known for his confrontational, relentless style, Brooks transformed the US squad into a force capable of hanging with European powers like the Soviets in their physical, wide-open style of play. The film emphasizes Brooks, and Kurt Russell embodies his toughness and detached inspirational quality, able to fire up his players despite his abrasiveness. It certainly didn’t hurt that Russell looked like the man he was portraying, but more important were the actor’s nuances — his subtle northern inflection and constant seething scowl, waiting for something to criticize or correct. The film built on Brooks’ actual speech to create the magical moment prior to the climactic tilt, but Guggenheim preserved the essence of the coach, his steady insistence to the team that they needed only to come together for three periods, for one night, in order to shock the world. The Americans of course went on to win the gold medal over Finland (similar to the Red Sox snatching the World Series in 2004 while we were still celebrating taking down the Yankees), and the Soviets actually captured the least satisfying silver medal I can possibly imagine, thanks to the now-deceased round robin medal round format. Our US teams failed to top the Soviets after that special night for another 11 years, but those moments, Jim Craig saves and Eruzione uplifts, will endure much longer than the medals or box scores.



Reflecting on my experience seeing the movie in theatres, I remember many things standing out, but above all is the clapping. Many people cringe or weep at the sound of applause during or even immediately after a film, but in this moment every clap was justified, each goal bringing heartbreak or pure elation, depending on which team tickled the twine. Surrounded by kids like myself, hanging on the edge of our seats, as well as parents and adults growing emotional at the sight of a seminal moment of their lifetime, the entire theatre came together beneath the presence of a sports movie reminding us why we love sports and what they represent. We get stuck on records and careers too often, but boiled down to their core, sports are about moments — fleeting images of men and women reminding us that given the proper circumstances, teammates, and perhaps some fortuitous bounces, anything can happen on any given night. These moments come less frequently than we think, flashing before us far faster than we would like, reminding us that miracles can happen, on and off the screen.


Keep on celebrating, Coach. GWW adores you.


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About Author: Brian McMahon

Brian is an author and co-founder of GoodWillWatching. He likes to write and is deathly afraid of bugs. His Great American Novel, not yet titled or existent, will be shocking the world some time or another. He once stayed up for two days straight because of poor information regarding the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was not due for approximately 57 years. You can follow him @bm1313 on Twitter, or in real life from a safe distance.