Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. Miracle

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Miracle

Year: 2004

Source materials : The medal round hockey game betwen the USA and the Soviet Union during the 1980 Winter Olympics

Budget: $28 million

Box office: $64.5 million

Plot: Herb Brooks, head ice hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, interviews with the United States Olympic Committee for the national team coach’s job, discussing his philosophy on how to beat the Soviet team, calling for changes to the practice schedule and strategy. The USOC is skeptical, but ultimately gives Brooks the job.

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Brooks meets his assistant coach Craig Patrick at the tryouts in Colorado Springs. Brooks selects a preliminary roster of 26, indifferent to the preferences of senior USOC hockey officials. He convinces USOC executive director Walter Bush that he has their best interests at heart. Bush reluctantly agrees to take the heat from the committee for Brooks’ decisions.

During the initial practice, tempers flare as forward Rob McClanahan and defenseman Jack O’Callahan get into a fight based on college rivalry. Brooks bluntly tells the players that they are to let go of old rivalries and start becoming a team. He then calls for introductions and the players each tell their name, hometown and which team they play for. As practices continue, Brooks uses unorthodox methods to winnow the roster down to 20 players. The players themselves worry about being cut at any time, knowing that Brooks himself was the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal, so he will do anything to win.

During an exhibition game against Norway in Oslo that ends in a 3–3 tie, Brooks notices the players are distracted and not playing up to their potential. After the game, he orders them back on the ice for a bag skate. Brooks has them skate from one end of the ice to the other several times, continuing the drill even after the rink manager cuts the power. Exhausted, forward and team captain Mike Eruzione re-introduces himself in the same matter from the initial practice and cries out that he plays for the United States. Getting the answer he wanted all along, Brooks finally tells the players they are done. Eventually, the team comes together, with the players thinking of themselves as a family representing the United States. Just before heading to Lake Placid, the Americans plays the Soviets in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. The Soviets manhandle the young American team, winning by a score of 10–3. During the game, O’Callahan receives an injury that could keep him out of the entire Olympics, and starting goaltender Jim Craig is told he may be benched in favor of backup Steve Janaszak. Craig ends up retaining his starting job when the coach brings him to realize that he hasn’t been giving his very best.

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As the 1980 Winter Olympics begins, the Americans trail Sweden 2–1 in the first game. Brooks fires up the team during an intermission by accusing an injured McClanahan of quitting. McClanahan ends up playing despite his injury, which inspires the team. Bill Baker scores a goal with less than a minute remaining in the third period for a dramatic 2–2 tie. They then follow up with a 7–3 win over heavily favored Czechoslovakia. As the Olympics continue, the team defeats Norway, Romania, and West Germany to earn a spot in the medal round. The Americans are considered overwhelming underdogs to the Soviets in the first medal round game. The game begins and the Soviets score the first goal. Then O’Callahan, having healed enough from his injury, enters the game for the first time. He makes an immediate impact by heavily checking Vladimir Krutov on a play that leads to a goal by Buzz Schneider. The Soviets score again to retake the lead. In the final seconds, Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak stops a long shot by Dave Christian, but Mark Johnson gets the rebound and scores with less than one second left in the period.

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During the first intermission, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov replaces Tretiak with backup Vladimir Myshkin. In the second period the Soviets score a goal to go up 3–2. Early in the final period the Soviet team is called for a penalty, putting the Americans on the power play. Johnson scores his second goal of the game just as the penalty is about to expire. Later, Eruzione puts them ahead 4–3 with 10 minutes left. The Americans hold off the Soviets to win the game, completing one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Two days later the team would go on to defeat Finland 4–2 to win the gold medal. The movie ends with Brooks staring out over his team with pride as the entire team crowds together on the gold medal platform.

Background: The casting of the team consisted of real hockey players to give the film a raw and accurate feel. Director Gavin O’Connor figured it would be easier to teach hockey players to act than to teach actors to play hockey. On-ice tryouts were held in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Vancouver. Another tryout was held in Vancouver for the Soviet and European teams.

There are a total of 133 different hockey plays in the film. To accomplish this, the directors turned to ReelSports Solutions, who had helped with the producers on a previous movie, The Rookie. The ReelSports team referred to coach Herb Brooks for information on practices, plays, equipment, and uniform styles. Each fight and stunt scene was choreographed to ensure the actors’ safety. Players went through a six-week training camp to relearn the game in older equipment.

Al Michaels recreated his commentary for most of the games. The final ten seconds, however, and his “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” call, were from the original broadcast and used in the film since the filmmakers felt that they could not ask him to recreate the emotion he felt at that moment.

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Sadly, Coach Brooks died in a car accident before the movie was released. At the end, before the credits it states, “This film is dedicated to the memory of Herb Brooks, who died shortly following principal photography. He never saw it. He lived it.”

Changes from the Source Material: O’Callahan said in an interview that while the fight between him and McClanahan was fictional the film accurately portrayed the “pretty intense” rivalry between Boston Trriers and Minnesota Gophers players, and was overall “pretty darn close” to actual events.

The film states that Vladislav Tretiak was Viktor Tikhonov’s “bread and butter for a decade” after being pulled from the net at the start of the second period of the game in the Olympics. The fact is that Tikhonov was not named head coach until 1977 while Tretiak was one from the old guard.

Cast: Disney Legend Kurt Russell returns as Coach Herb Brooks.

Patricia Clarkson as Patti Brooks. She made her feature film debut in The Untouchables, followed by a supporting role in The Dead Pool. She appeared in High Art, The Green Mile, The Pledge, Dogville, The Station Agent, Pieces of April, Six Feet Under, Good Night, and Good Luck, Lars and the Real Girl, Elegy, Shutter Island, Easy A, Friends with Benefits, The Maze Runner, The Party, House of Cards, and Sharp Objects. Noah Emmerich as Craig Patrick. He best known for his roles in films such as Beautiful Girls, The Truman Show, Frequency, Miracle, Little Children, and Super 8. From 2013 to 2018 he starred as FBI agent Stan Beeman on the FX series The Americans, for which he won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2019.

Sean McCann as Walter Bush. He appeared in The Air Up There, Trapped in Paradise, Tommy Boy, Affliction, Simon Birch, and Chicago. Kenneth Welsh as Doc Nagobads. He is known as the multi-faceted villain, Windom Earle, in Twin Peaks and played the father of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. Welsh has portrayed historical figures including Thomas E. Dewey, Colin Thatcher, Harry S. Truman (twice), Thomas Edison, James “Scotty” Reston, General Harry Crerar and James Baker. He has made guest appearances on Due South and Slings and Arrows.

Eddie Cahill 1 as Jim Craig. He is known for playing the roles of Tag Jones in Friends and Detective Don Flack in CSI: NY. His most recent main role was as District Attorney Conner Wallace in Conviction. Nathan West as Rob McClanahan.West worked on the television series 7th Heaven with his now wife Chyler Leigh, playing Mary Camden’s (Jessica Biel) troubled friends Johnny and Frankie. He also appeared in the award winning independent feature Alleged.

  • Critical Reception:
    Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times stated that the movie “does a yeoman’s job of rcycling the day-old dough that passes for its story.”
  • Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times referred to the movie as “a classically well-made studio entertainment that, like The Rookie of a few years back, has the knack of being moving without shamelessly overdoing a sure thing.”

My take: Like Cool Runnings, this is an event that happened in my lifetime and I remember it, although not very well. Unlike the other film, this one didn’t change much from the historical events. And I have to say, it’s shot very well. The hockey scenes are eady to follow and full of great moving shots. I love that they used Al Michael’s actual recording for his famous line.

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: Around the World in 80 Days