Screw you, whatever, that’s a good pun. U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller stood on his head and catapulted the Americans to the top seed in the knock-out round of the Olympic tournament. This is a big deal: Basically, we have to beat (probably) the Swiss and the Finns to make the gold medal game. Miller’s performance only proves that ice hockey goaltender is the single most important and most demanding position in all of team sports, rivaled only by quarterback. (Yes, the author of this blog is a former goalie. He is now considering retiring into curling.)
Though this victory was not anywhere near the Miracle on Ice, I was reminded of the movie Miracle, which you probably remember as that Disney hockey movie. True enough, but Miracle is also a subtle political statement and the first film to really understand goaltending. Director Gavin O’Connor (whose only movie to date was Janet McTeer’s Tumbleweeds) Miracle opens with a montage of ’70s political moments, Vietnam protests and Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” speech. From here, O’Connor displays cultural absurdities of the decade (disco, streaking, the Coneheads, Billy Beer) as the natural outgrowth of the confusion and disillusionment of the era’s political failings. This leads us to the troubles of the late ’70s: recession, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The montage ends with Jimmy Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Then, as if heeding this call to action, a ragtag bunch of skaters works to replenish the national spirit in a little rink tucked inside Rochester, Minnesota.
O’Connor’s montage doesn’t just give context, but it also raises larger questions about America: Why were we failing? Were the Soviets winning the Cold War, and if so, why?
In the first scene after the montage, Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) is asked why the Soviets beat the hell out of the NHL All-Stars in a recent exhibition: “It’s not because you weren’t good enough. All-star teams don’t succeed because they rely on talent. [The Russians] take that talent and mold it into a system that’s designed for the betterment of the team.”
This is a coaching cliché, of course, but in context, O’Connor suggests that the Me Decade attitude eroded America’s ability to act collectively and achieve greatness—in short, to win the Cold War.
O’Connor puts aside the political subtext to deliver the sports-movie goods. After a lazy performance against the Norwegians, Coach Brooks skates the boys until they puke to get them to understand the team concept, while the assistant coach stares at Brooks as if he’s insane. Of course, Coach Knows Exactly What He’s Doing, and he’s got the clichés to prove it: “Be prepared to grow through pain.” “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” “Maybe if they’re all hating me, they won’t have time to hate each other.”
Just how much of a “psychological mastermind” is Coach Brooks? His first assignment for the team is a 300-question psych exam, which he administers because the real test is to see if his goaltender will refuse to take it. And how beautiful is Brooks’ hockey mind? Well, he devises defensive zone breakout options on the rink glass like John Nash figuring out Reimann’s Hypothesis from inside Princeton’s library.
In fact, Kurt Russell paints Herb Brooks as complex portrait of an American working man, father figure, and ambitious, ingenious opportunist — a unique American icon in answer to Carter’s challenge. The temptation here is to turn Brooks into Lombardi on skates, but Brooks has to maintain emotional control for the audience to buy that he “does everything for a reason.” He only has a few outbursts (strategically planned, to wit), so Russell has to build the performance from the inside out. Russell has gotten more interesting as he’s gotten older: He has an older man’s bulk that’s intimidating, but he’s also developed active, inquisitive eyes that project understanding rather than anger or stoicism. He scowls, he lectures, and he’s tough enough to skate out there and snap some bullet wristers at his keeper — but Russell has a deadpan sense of humor and a deft touch with the young boys’ emotions. Brooks achieves the spiritual ideal of his sport, forming a bond between a group of men with razor blades strapped to their feet flying into each other at 30 mph: “hockey team” is a state of mind.
Not only does O’Connor understand the psychology of the sport, he is the first director to understand what differentiates hockey from the other major team sports. The skating element makes hockey truly dangerous, yet skating gives it a speed and grace unmatched by traditional running sports. O’Connor understands that this flow is what makes the game great, yet hard to follow on television. So, he places the camera at ice level, moving at hockey speed, then dramatically cutting and stopping with the players. O’Connor also captures the constant flow of players shuttling on and off the ice—and, not only does he avoid slow motion (which would completely undermine the whole point of filming hockey), he also avoids dramatizing high speed collisions. Rather, O’Connor focuses on the beauty that emerges from chaos.
More impressively, O’Connor shows remarkably the difficulty of goaltender Jim Craig’s job. As Craig himself describes in an interview with Eddie Cahill, who plays him in the movie, “When a person comes up the ice, there are 10 things a person can do, then there are seven things a person can do … you’re eliminating things as a person comes at you. You are eliminating options.” This is exactly what a goaltender calculates as the action comes at him. In a few remarkable sequences, O’Connor flows the camera backward down the ice; we see the options narrow, then—wham!, the goalie anticipates the next movie, beating the puck to the spot to make the save. This is the essence of the most difficult job in sports, where a man has to take himself to a place where he cannot think, only anticipate and react. In short, O’Connor films goaltending as athletic meditation.
As the Olympics approach, O’Connor’s movie regains its political bent. Brooks agonizes over the team’s final cut while the Iranians are burning American flags over his shoulder on television; the boys even give Brooks a nameplate that says “Ayatolla.” To lead into an exhibition with the Soviets at Madison Square Garden three days before the Olympics, O’Connor boldly plays the Twin Towers card, showing us the skyscrapers when the team lands in New York. At first, this seems like a shameless ploy, but O’Connor’s first internal shot of Madison Square Garden is the Americans skating out underneath a banner reading, “Soviet Union: Get the Puck Out of Afghanistan.” We finally meet the Red Army, who rules the ice by intimidation and fear. O’Connor shows us, without demonization, that the Soviets’ arrogance is as much a part of the “miracle” as the Americans’ can-do attitude and relentless training.
During the Miracle game itself, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov’s pulling of goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (generally thought of as the greatest goalie in history) after the first period remains one of the worst coaching moves in modern sports — yet in the movie, O’Connor lets Tikhonov off easy; he calmly strokes his wing-tip eyebrows after the Americans sneak into the Russian zone and steal a goal at the end of the first period. Thus, O’Connor’s juxtaposition of the scrappy Americans and the indomitable empire is a story that reaches back to Lexington and Concord: The Red Army simply were not expecting a guerilla attack or for this ragtag militia to withstand the siege.
This is where O’Connor makes a sly political statement. The movie ends with Brooks delivering a monologue about what that victory meant to America. “A few years later, the USOC decided to send pro teams to the Olympics … ‘Dream Teams,’ they call them. But now that we have ‘Dream Teams,’ seldom do we get to dream.” Here, Miracle — for all its Disneyishness — does something quite daring: The movie suggests that the same arrogance that drove the Soviets to send its Red Army team to international competition is the same arrogance that America projects with its Jordan-and-Kobe led squads.
Looking back on the film now, Miracle poses more tough questions about this victory than it provides answers about its legacy. The Soviets were so hated because they imposed their will on the world, whether invading Afghanistan or forcing world-class goaltender Tretiak to renounce his desire to play in the NHL. But then O’Connor boldly shows us the Twin Towers to remind us that they aren’t there anymore. He uses the Olympics to gauge the rise and fall of two empires; Miracle shows us who we were then, and then asks who we are now.
Are we still a nation that values those old ideals of sacrifice, hard work and perseverance in times of national trial, as we were called to during the Cold War? What do our leaders ask of us in these trying times—and, more importantly, if they ask for sacrifice, are we willing to give it? What have we done to replenish the American spirit, as goaltender Jim Craig and the boys did over two decades ago? As a nation, can we still celebrate minutemen if we have become the world’s ruling empire? Are we as arrogant today in Afghanistan and Iraq as the Soviets were then? Will it be our undoing? As Herb Brooks says, there will never be another Miracle for America. It will be someone else’s miracle when they finally topple the mighty Dream Team — all the while telling us to get the puck out of Afghanistan.
Unless, of course, Ryan Miller comes up with fifty saves in the gold medal game against the Russians. That would be another miracle.