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.
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.