Give my the old-time hockey, hold the malaise

Culture | Sports movies have pretty much the same plot.

Issue: "Iraq: The WMD debate," Feb. 21, 2004

Sports movies have pretty much the same plot. A group of individuals comes together, working through various conflicts and obstacles to become a team. The climax of the movie is "the big game," which ends with an inspiring victory.

That sums up the movies about little leaguers, basketball players, baseball teams, football stars, boxers, and race horses-and it sums up Miracle, the new Disney film about the U.S. hockey team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1980. The difference is that the real-life story chronicled in Miracle really happened, and the team's victory over the Russians was even more astonishing and uplifting than a fiction writer would have the nerve to make up.

There is a reason why the conventions of sports stories keep being repeated in movie after movie: They express the meaning of sports-the building of character, the coalescing of separate individuals into a unified team, the mental toughness that creates physical toughness, the exhilaration of victory.

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The realism and the historicity of Miracle-with the powerful performance of Kurt Russell as the team's coach, Herb Brooks-render those conventions and those meanings in an especially satisfying way.

In 1980, America was guilt-ridden about having just fought an unnecessary war, angst-ridden about the economy, and being pushed around by the Iranians. To the backdrop of President Jimmy Carter's national "malaise" speech, we see Coach Brooks building his team of college players, whose upset victory over the Soviet Red Army team boosted American patriotism and self-confidence when the country needed it the most.

Mr. Russell plays a coach of the old school, who says, "I am your coach. I am not your friend." In tryouts, he passes over star players in favor of team players he thinks will thrive as a unit within his innovative system. He drives his players until they hate his guts and throw up their own. But the players overcome their old college rivalries and personal animosities. The turning point is when they stop identifying themselves as playing for Minnesota or Boston and start saying that they play for the United States of America.

The excitement of hockey-the speed, the crashing against the boards, the intricate action-best experienced by actually attending a game, is captured well in the movie, which brings the viewer right onto the ice.

The climactic battle with the seemingly invincible Soviets is a thriller, even though we know how it is going to end, and in the last seconds, we hear Al Michaels in the broadcasting booth saying, as he did in 1980, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

The movie is rated PG, avoiding all but the mildest of locker-room language, and is appropriate for families, especially boys who will find it helpful to learn why coaches are the way they are. And it should encourage Americans to do what they can to prevent the country from slipping into another "malaise."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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