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On Thin Ice 

Basketball coach Bobby Knight has failed to control his explosive temper on numerous occasions in his long career. Recently, he got into an ugly shouting match with the chancellor of Texas Tech University, where he now coaches. While coaching at the University of Indiana, he once threw a metal folding chair clear across the court during a home game. He was filmed kicking the legs of a player who displeased him. Former Indiana Hoosier Neil Reed accused Knight of choking him at practice. And the coach finally lost his job at Indiana when he grabbed a student for addressing him "impolitely." Knight wasn't unemployed long, landing his current job despite his violent reputation. Knight's bullying tactics have been tolerated for more than three decades because his teams have won and have sometimes won championships. Now Gavin O'Connor's Miracle asks us to endorse another coaching bully. You can count me out.

Written by Eric Guggenheim, Miracle tells the story of the late Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), the University of Minnesota ice hockey coach who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a gold medal. En route, the Americans staged a stunning upset of a vaunted Soviet Union team that had dominated world competition for years, thumped all-star squads from the NHL and humiliated the U.S. Olympians only three weeks earlier. The U.S. victory over the Soviets that year remains one of the most unlikely and therefore stirring sports stories of all time, in league with the Joe Namath-led New York Jets' Super Bowl upset of the Baltimore Colts and the New York Mets' World Series triumph (both in 1969), and Muhammad Ali's knockout of George Foreman in 1974's "The Rumble in the Jungle." Even sports fans like me, who know little about and seldom follow hockey, remember exactly where they were when the final horn sounded with the U.S. leading 4-3.

As I have acknowledged in this space previously, I am an easy mark for the sports flick. My heart swells when Burt Reynolds plunges across the goal line in The Longest Yard, when the bike wheel crosses the finish line in Breaking Away or when the winning shot rustles through the basketball net in Hoosiers. The first of those two films are pure fiction, the last based on an actual event not that widely known. They all result in a last-second triumph that is the staple climactic event in a sports movie. Once you know the formula, the end isn't ever really in doubt. And yet you are roused anyway.

So why isn't Miracle comparably affecting? Because the successful sports movie gets you invested in its underdog characters. Would we care as much that Rocky Balboa goes the distance in his championship fight if we didn't know that he trained by punching slabs of beef, pined for an inexperienced wallflower, and kept pet turtles named Cuff and Link? Of course not. And here's where Miracle makes a fatal misstep. Aside from goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), we can barely distinguish one American hockey player from the next. They are young, athletic and good looking, and they have no back story whatsoever. When a player named Mark Johnson (Eric Peter-Kaiser) scores two consecutive goals against the Soviets, we don't recall having met him previously.

The filmmakers try to make up for their character development deficiencies in two ways. First, they try to place the 1980 Winter Olympics in the cultural context of its time. An opening montage shows Nixon declaring he's not a crook and subsequently resigning his presidency, Gerald Ford bemoaning runaway inflation, Islamic fundamentalists taking Americans hostage in Iran, and Jimmy Carter decrying our national crisis of confidence. Miracle submits that our whole nation's attitude about itself reversed course one night when 20 American skaters slid one more puck into a hockey net than did their Soviet opponents. Inflated nonsense, of course.

Secondly, Miracle decides to focus not on the players, but on Coach Brooks. And this is a very unwise choice indeed. Brooks is so arrogant he refuses to follow the established Olympic selection process. He's a snarling despot who barks at his players on the first day of practice, "I'll be your coach; I won't be your friend." He browbeats his team pitilessly. He questions their manhood. He humiliates players publicly. He threatens to cut players after the team has been chosen and to bring in new players at the last minute. He storms into locker rooms, throws around equipment and overturns tables. In one brutal scene after a game where Brooks judges his players have given inadequate effort, he puts them through an endless, sadistic drill that even chills his assistants.

We're supposed to believe all this physical and psychological torment was the reason for their victory. I don't. I say shame on Herb Brooks and all the Bobby Knights of the coaching world who wield the power of their position to thieve the joy of sport from those who play it. And shame on Miracle for tarnishing a treasured sports memory.

click to enlarge U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt - Russell, right) gives goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) a - piece of his mind in Miracle.
  • U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell, right) gives goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill) a piece of his mind in Miracle.
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