Blu-ray Review: Miracle (2004)

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"Again," Herb Brooks repeats, forcing his assistant coach Craig Patrick to blow one terse whistle as the shrill sound signals the players of 1980's Team USA to skate back and forth all night after their 3-3 tie with Norway.

And once the skates of the college aged boy return back to Brooks and Patrick's side of the rink, it's "Again," he curtly calls out consistently to remind the boys to pay less attention to the blonde beauties and more attention to what they're doing in Lake Placid, New York. This continues on as he repeats his battle cry of "Again," way past the point of exhaustion until both Coach Patrick and the boys seem like they're ready to give in.

Yet they don't give in and that's what made the "do you believe in miracles?" defeat of the dominant Russian competitors by the scrappy and determined American players all the more inspiring since it gave our country a stronger sense of unity in a time marked by post-Vietnam, post-Nixon uncertainty coupled with the other tumultuous international events occurring simultaneously.

Of course, Disney-- or more specifically screenwriter Eric Guggenheim and director Gavin O'Connor took a creative license with what was called "Herbie's Day" by ending the scene with the resounding moral lesson that instead of calling out their names and the schools for which they played with Mike Eruzione's triumphant declaration that he played for the United States of America as opposed to staying with the facts that Mark Johnson smashed his stick against the glass out of intense frustration ending "Herbie's Day." Yet cinematically the switch is warranted as it's the defining moment for the film in its celebration of always returning to battle "again" until the ultimate goal was achieved both literally and figuratively.

And moreover, the inclusion of fabricated moments to heighten the retelling doesn't negatively impact what is otherwise an essentially by-the-numbers authentic retelling of what was arguably the most memorable Olympic Victory for this country since we first took part in the games.

Over the past twenty years, Disney has shown an unparalleled interest and success in bringing true sports stories of underdogs facing down giants to life in works such as the acclaimed Remember the Titans, Invincible, Glory Road, and The Greatest Game Ever Played just to name a few and they've managed to make the works successful to both fans and critics alike. And honestly Miracle skates by more on nostalgia than the aforementioned works because it isn't quite as engrossing on a character driven level as the structurally more impressive Invincible nor nearly as gripping and sociologically relevant as Remember the Titans and Glory Road or as technically daring as The Greatest Game Ever Played.

No, instead of spending a whole lot of time really looking for a way in to bring this to audiences on a more historically unique level-- overall, Miracle plays as a stellar reenactment of our amazing victory. Indeed, it's elevated considerably by the always underrated Kurt Russell who disappears into his role as Herb Brooks (making it a loving tribute to the man who would tragically perish in a car crash shortly after production was completed) as well as filmmaker Gavin O'Connor's risky decision to recreate that penultimate match before we took the gold after defeating Finland.

While of course due to the intense research, the involvement of Herb Brooks, key players, and the fact that it was incredibly well-documented by ABC in its original 1980 broadcast assisted the filmmakers greatly, as they note in a Blu-ray making-of-extra, when it comes right down to it, "you can't fake hockey."

Collaborating alongside a technically impressive and trained group of experts, they worked out 133 plays which they choreographed, digitized and recreated with computer animation as if-- they joke-- constructing "a military battle plan" that they captured with numerous cameras to bring us closer inside the game than we'd originally seen on television nearly 30 years ago. And in fact by inserting many more cameras on the ice and therefore having to also work out in painstaking detail where the cameras would be to avoid injury, they ensure continuity and accuracy, yet at the same time manage to get the best image possible which is an exceptional achievement.

It's also aided considerably by its cast of mostly unknown athletes-- including Billy Schneider who portrayed his father Buzz Schneider--all of whom they hired first for their hockey and skating ability before they worried about acting from the pool of more than 4,000 men who showed up to fight for a chance to take on one of the 20 famous slots on the team which makes their movements on the ice incredibly believable. Yet aside from a few obvious standouts, overall the point-of-view of the players or much about their individual personalities is abandoned to take a Herb Brooks approach of making it all about the team and the training on the path to Olympic glory.

Bravely going against the easy approach of just playing Brooks as a complete Dudley Do-Right style hero, Russell-- who nails my native Minnesota accent so perfectly that it's downright uncanny-- presents us with a complex portrait of Brooks who would prefer to be loathed and have his assistant Coach Patrick (the terrific character actor Noah Emmerich) along on the team to be the friendly buffer to push the kids to the limit.

From the near-instantaneous decision which athletes he will recruit onto his team by ignoring the board and money men as well as some of the very best or most obviously gifted players to find the 20 he can mold together to giving them a psychological test to figure out their personalities and how best to manipulate that data for the overall goal-- Brooks is a fascinating figure.

Extremely determined to beat the unstoppable force of the (then) USSR players by training harder, out-skating them, and using their "team play" idea against them by changing the style of the game even to the point of alienating those around him and making questionable decisions-- it's Russell's most fully realized character and strongest performance in years as it becomes just like Hoosiers more of a coach-centric journey rather than one about the players on the team.

Although it's a bit overly long and Patricia Clarkson is wasted in numerous scenes as the stereotypical sports movie wife who jockeys for position and tries to remind Herb not to overwork himself and also spend time with his family and again, we're never that drawn in by the players themselves-- mostly the movie feels like an exceptionally well-choreographed Olympic skating routine.

And as such it delivers all of its competition required technical moves with crisp precision and manages to get the audience in on the routine because there's just no way to describe that feeling of the '80 miracle on ice rather than to just show it to you again in the hopes of inspiration and encouragement when we needed it most as a nation. For fittingly, I discovered it was not only released three years after 9/11 but was also the first movie that filmmakers had to digitally recreate the Twin Towers in production since the terrorist attacks had occurred.

Similarly it reminds us once again of the ingenious methods of Herb Brooks with some terrific extra footage including a videotaped meeting of Herb with Russell and the filmmakers and a plethora of making-of extras and analysis of the game by ESPN in a roundtable in this stellar Blu-ray.

With full HD quality in its 2.40:1 aspect ratio and English 5.1 DTS-Master Audio, the sound and picture is so rich and textured that you can hear the blades crunch on the ice and the puck hit the goal in those aforementioned player point-of-view on-the-ice game shots, ensuring that it's another good time to bring out Miracle once again to rally us just before the thirtieth anniversary of that remarkable game. So to honor Brooks and the players-- go ahead and sound the whistle and get ready to skate "Again!"