'Miracle' is a hit and miss affair

In an open letter to the press, director Gavin O'Connor says he "never intended 'Miracle' to be a 'sports' movie." He could have fooled me, since "Miracle" is practically nonstop sports from beginning to end - and that's a long 136 minutes.

Mr. O'Connor says he approached the movie as a "character study," with Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks as "a mad scientist" and his players "a lab experiment." That sounds more interesting to a person like me who doesn't cotton to spectator sports. But while the movie does depict Mr. Brooks as something of a monomaniac - one wonders how the late coach would have liked this portrait - his character has fewer dimensions than a hockey puck.

What the movie does demonstrate is that Hollywood still hasn't tired of refighting the cold war in every way it can think of. Based on the real 1980 Winter Olympics, the story shows Brooks's team, portrayed as a wholesome set of individualized American youths, preparing to beat the Soviet team. (The foes are portrayed as a faceless pack of "win at any cost" fanatics, whose excellence on the ice is somehow unfair to individualized American youths.)

"Miracle" is the kind of feel-good picture that many moviegoers love, so I hasten to add that it has its good points, and the cast works as hard as those hockey players did. Kurt Russell is always credible as the coach, and Patricia Clarkson does her best as his neglected wife, a character so underwritten it's often hard to remember she's in the story. And the climactic game packs a fast-moving wallop - more exciting to my eyes than all of "Seabiscuit" put together.

Like the Oscar-nominated "Seabiscuit," though, "Miracle" fails to ring true as it tries to make a sporting event an all-embracing metaphor for the American way. O'Connor peppers the action with bits and pieces of '70s social context - a newspaper headline, a TV news report, a Jimmy Carter speech about how Americans are losing their faith in the future. Still, he never explains why we should see a hockey game - even this tantalizing match between cold-war foes - as anything more than, well, a hockey game.

O'Connor says the win by Brooks's team "united us as a nation." That seems like overstatement to me, even by showbiz standards.

Rated PG; contains mild vulgarity.

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