** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Written by Eric Guggenheim

With Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, and Nathan West.

Two years ago Disney released a fine sports drama called The Rookie, the true story of a high school baseball coach who tried out for the majors at age 35. Smart and funny, with a winning performance by Dennis Quaid, it played all through the spring and summer of 2002 and grossed more than $75 million. The studio’s latest offering, Miracle, is cast from the same mold, but this story is already lodged in the national memory: the U.S. hockey team’s surprising victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The movie comes freighted with historical events–energy shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan–that the filmmakers couldn’t really ignore, but they handle them as gingerly as possible, as if their story happened a long time ago in a cold war far, far away.

If you’re in the movie’s target audience of children and young teens it may have, but I don’t feel any great need to wrap myself in the flag over a 24-year-old hockey game, especially now that the Soviet Union is history and the U.S. has its own dubious track record in Afghanistan. The film uses President Carter’s long-reviled “malaise speech” to provide a moment of inspiration and illumination–you’d never guess that Carter was trying to get Americans to conserve petroleum–and it settles into wallpaper jingoism, with an incessant sound track of portentous music and crowds chanting “USA! USA!” If you can tolerate all this phony uplift you’ll also get a pretty interesting story about a shrewd Minnesota college coach named Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) who developed a more international style of hockey with a handpicked roster of young nonprofessionals and defeated the most feared team in the world.

Russell is now 52 and has been acting in movies for 40 years; the montage of 70s images that accompanies the opening credits of Miracle might well have included young Kurt in some Disney comedy like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. His powerhouse performance as a bitter LA cop in last year’s Dark Blue reminded me what he can do with a good role, and he delivers again as Brooks, a terse and puzzling character to many who knew him. “People ask Herb if he did something for a psychological reason and he’ll never say,” recalls forward John Harrington in Tim Wendel’s Going for the Gold. “He’ll just sit there with that smug look on his face.” Brooks didn’t care whether his players hated him as long as he got results, and in like fashion Russell never lets the coach become an object of sentiment. As a young player Brooks was cut from the 1960 Olympic team shortly before it won the gold, and in the movie he still seems to be grinding himself (and his players) into dust over it.

His personal ambition drives the action more than any patriotism–a good sportsman, he scoffs at the journalists who are turning the Soviet matchup into a political contest–and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim carefully tracks his struggles with the Olympic committee and his players. The Soviet hockey team had won the gold in every Olympics since 1964; to beat it Brooks recruited college players who were superior skaters and put them through an arduous six-month training regimen that included 60 exhibition games in Europe and North America. Typically North American teams would shoot the puck into the offensive zone and then skate in on the sides, trying to grab it back and score; the formidable Eastern Bloc teams were used to the Olympic rink, which is 15 feet wider than the NHL’s, and more adept at keeping the puck and staging creative plays at the net. Brooks taught his young players these skills and combined them with the aggressive, heavy-checking style of American hockey.

He was a merciless taskmaster. After the team lost to Norway he embarrassed his players by keeping them out on the ice for 45 minutes of skating exercises as the spectators filed out, an incident pumped for high drama by the movie: Russell chews gum and fumes as he overhears two players discussing women while their team loses. After the game he enlists his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (sensitively played by Noah Emmerich), to blow the whistle for him in the prolonged torture session punctuated with angry homilies, which continues after the rink custodian has shut off the lights and the players are doubled over on the ice. It’s pure Hollywood corn, but it works, mostly because Russell looks like he could bury a stick in someone’s face.

By February 1980, when the U.S. team was routed by the Soviets in a late exhibition game at Madison Square Garden, American hostages had spent ten weeks in captivity in Iran and Brezhnev had marched 85,000 troops into Afghanistan, threatening U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil. Neither incident really penetrates the movie. Brooks is so fixated on his team that his wife (Patricia Clarkson) has to direct his attention to the TV, where breaking news of the hostage crisis elicits a thoughtful “Hmm.” His reaction to the Afghanistan invasion must have wound up on the cutting-room floor, because suddenly Brooks is telling his wife about Carter’s plan to boycott the summer games in Moscow and worrying that as a consequence the Russians won’t show up at Lake Placid. Carter later wrote in his memoirs that Brooks supported the boycott, though the idea was heavily criticized at the time, most audibly by Ted Kennedy, who was challenging Carter for the Democratic nomination.

Like President Bush after 9/11, Carter had rebounded in the public esteem after his apparently cool handling of Iran and Afghanistan, and most Americans supported the new doctrine articulated in his State of the Union address, that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Inevitably the match between Brooks’s squad and the Soviets became politicized in the media, and when the U.S. team came from behind to defeat the USSR on Friday, February 22, Americans got down. “In New York City, strangers in bars embraced and sang ‘God Bless America,'” reported the New York Times. “Bedlam erupted at the Palestra in Philadelphia when the American victory was announced before the start of the Penn-Harvard basketball game. The band struck up the National Anthem and the crowd of 5,000 burst into song.”

Two days later the team beat Finland to take the gold, and as any president would, Carter invited them to the White House and basked in the glow of their victory–the day before the New Hampshire primary. None of that winds up in the movie, thank God, though Carter has a voice in the film that’s certainly unusual in a sports story. The opening montage touches on Watergate, the fall of Saigon, gas lines, and Three Mile Island and ends with the president’s July 1979 energy speech diagnosing “a crisis of confidence” in the American people. That Christmas Eve, Brooks listens to a year-end recap of the speech on his car radio as he drives home from a team party. “We need to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking,” says the president. “Working together with our common faith, we cannot fail.”

Carter was trying to establish a coherent energy policy in the face of rampant inflation, OPEC price increases, and Americans fighting with knives and guns in gas lines. Serious civil disturbances erupted in Pennsylvania and North Carolina as truckers tried to intercept gasoline shipments on the highways. The president had scheduled his energy address for July 5, then canceled it without explanation and retreated to Camp David to confer with businessmen, labor leaders, academics, and religious figures. When he finally spoke to the country ten days later he ignored Vice President Mondale’s advice that he stick to political realities and listened instead to his pollster, Pat Caddell, who’d urged him to discuss the nation’s moral exhaustion. The speech was generally well received–only later did it begin to stick in people’s throats as an example of Carter’s schoolmarm personality–but it failed to steer the U.S. away from its dependence on foreign oil.

The last half hour of the movie is all Sturm und Drang, yet the only powerful moments are quiet and solitary: when Brooks has to tell a player he’s been cut from the team immediately before the games, just as he was cut 20 years earlier, or when he disappears into a deserted hallway after the victory over the Soviets and slides to the floor overwhelmed, alone with his vindication. Even the movie’s inspirational sound bite ends on a sad personal note, when Brooks arrives home and finds that the family he’s neglected for nine months have gone to bed without him. It’s even more poignant given that the 66-year-old coach died last year in a car accident on his way home.

Of course the team gladly shared its victory with the nation, and the players became heroes for pulling together when Americans couldn’t. That sort of unity toward a common goal seems more miraculous all the time, though I reserve the right to believe in it.