Mighty pucks: Pumping up America's morale

We may know the answer by the time you read this, but I wonder which presidential candidate will co-opt Miracle as his personal vision, the way Ronald Reagan did Bruce Springsteen's song, "Born in the U.S.A."

Will Bush compare himself to the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team and claim to have raised the country's morale with his supposed accomplishments; or will some Democrat update Jimmy Carter's speech, excerpted in Miracle, about how Vietnam and Watergate had eroded the country's confidence?

Miracle is that kind of movie, a crowd-pleaser meant to make Americans stand up and cheer (I question whether it will be an international success) by recreating a historical high point. At least, thank heaven, the event took place on the playing field, not the battlefield.

Kurt Russell has one of his best roles (and worst hairdos) as Herb Brooks, the driven coach who assembled his team, mainly "a lot of guys from Minnesota and Boston," in the summer of 1979 and trained them hard with the specific goal of defeating the Soviets, whose hockey team had dominated the Winter Games since 1964.

A bit too much time is spent at the outset making sure the dimmest bulb on the tree understands Herb is not your run-of-the-mill coach. He insists on training the men in a new, "Soviet-Canadian hybrid" style he's developed. Given a week to choose his team from among 60 candidates in consultation with a committee, he does it himself in one day and presents the list as a fait accompli: 26 men, to be cut to 20 over seven months of training.

At their first meeting Herb tells the team, "I'll be your coach. I won't be your friend." They can go to his assistant (Noah Emmerich) or the team doctor (Kenneth Welsh) for warm fuzzies. It's his way of getting them to function as a unit.

It's also an age-old formula for movies about war, sports, or anything else where teamwork is required. The leader talks tough, but we know deep inside he loves the guys and they love him.

Miracle splits into two roughly equal parts, training and the Olympics, with a final exhibition game at Madison Square Garden between the U.S. and Soviet teams in between. Held three days before the official start of the games, it results in a resounding defeat for the Americans.

Hockey fans who are disappointed by not seeing enough playing in the first half– most of the team's time on the ice is spent in speed drills– will be ecstatic during the second half, which has little else.

The face-off against the Soviets is actually the first game of the medal round, but it's the one that means the most to Herb– and us, spelled U.S. We're still in the Cold War. One fan in Texas has written Herb saying, "Beat those Commie bastards!"

That Miracle has the same producers as The Rookie is most evident in the overkill casting of Patricia Clarkson in the stock role of Herb's wife. (Rachel Griffiths was the wife in The Rookie.) She's great, but a hundred lesser actresses could have played the part.

With 20 teammates plus six who are cut (as Herb was cut from the 1960 team a week before the start of the games, which is supposed to explain his obsession), it's hard to get to know any of them. A few are given their own subplots, but the one that registers most strongly is goalie Jim Craig's (Eddie Cahill). He's playing in memory of his late mother, whose death before the start of the film is milked for too long.

A couple of players are injured, and Herb turns their injuries to the team's advantage, one way or another. Three guys who play well together are nicknamed "The Coneheads," but they fade back into the crowd after being established. Screenwriter Eric Guggenheim squeezes in far too many such details that can't be adequately developed. They should have left them for the DVD or a miniseries and tightened the film to its essentials.

Aside from Cahill, most of the players are non-actors with hockey experience. While few are likely to have found a new career path, none of them embarrass themselves.

Nor does director Gavin O'Connor (Tumbleweeds), although he doesn't distinguish himself either. Miracle isn't the Seabiscuit of hockey, but it should have the intended impact on its target audience and play in heavy rotation when Disney gets around to starting an all-sports channel– or is that ESPN?