Unsung Anniversaries #1: Miracle

Miracle

Every time a well known film approaches a landmark anniversary, people start to freak out anew; awash in a sense of celebration and nostalgia. There could be brand new special edition Blu-Rays, DVDs, theatrical re-releases, countless think pieces and oral histories looking back on what is/was/could have been, and a renewed life for anything remotely noteworthy.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this in practice. Revisiting the classics can be a lot of fun, but what about all those films that fall through the cracks? There are thousands of films produced all over the world every year, many of which are remembered only by a select few, beloved by less, and hundreds that are just not cool enough to be celebrated for thousand word pieces in blogs or magazines. Should we immediately discount those films as invalid parts of film history? Among these are some of the least known masterpieces that have somehow fallen through the cracks, blockbusters that people rarely think about anymore, films that were smarter than we ever gave them credit for, B-movie classics, and genuinely interesting disasters.

Take for example, the first film that I have chosen for a new series on the site called Unsung Anniversaries, the 2004 hockey drama Miracle. It’s a perfectly made sports drama from a sport that has far too few dramas about it that can be taken seriously. It made an alright amount of money when it was released on this very date ten years ago, and occasionally it comes up in conversation whenever someone gets lazy at a sports network and has to come up with the ten billionth “Best Sports Movies of All Time” list.

But do we ever really even talk about Miracle and why it was good? Should it be remembered at all or has it truly achieved all that it set out to do and we never need to think about it again? That’s what we hope to address here in this new column.

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First, some ground rules before going ahead:

1. We aren’t celebrating any obvious anniversaries this year. No Forest Gump, no Ghostbusters (or Ghostbusters II), no Nightmare on Elm Street, no Mean Girls, no The Neverending Story. I am positive people already have these covered and there’s no need to wade any further into discussions of films that were either box office smashes or that have gained huge cult notoriety to a point where they have become iconic and ubiquitous.

2. Films will be examined on or around their actual release dates for proper celebration/condemnation. This means a few things: first, we are only going to be going back as far as 1984 with this series and we are only doing films having their 30th, 25th, 20th, 15th, or 10th anniversaries. Going back earlier than 1980 means we get into the era where four walling pictures and limited releases make it extremely hard to nail down what the proper and confirmable release date of a film actually was. Also, it means that if a film came out in December in its year of release, it will be covered IN December, not, say, July.

3. I am definitely open to suggestions going forward, so if you know of any films that came out in 1984. 1989, 1994, 1999, or 2004 that you think have unjustly fallen through the cracks of cinema history or that you think are worth a revisit, let me know and maybe I will get around to it (or it could already be on the list I have made up).

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And now for our feature presentation:

Miracle

Release date: February 6, 2004 (10th anniversary)

Opening weekend box office: $19.4 million (#2, 2,605 screens)

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Other notable films opening that weekend: Barbershop 2: Back in Business (which would unseat You Got Served as the #1 movie at the box office), Catch That Kid, The Dreamers

Days in theatrical release: 87 (pulled from theatres on April 30th)

Final domestic box office take: $64.4 million

Reported budget: $28 million

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How I remember first watching Miracle:

The first time I watched it was working as a projectionist in a movie theatre after hours. I remembered being entertained by it. I was a hockey nut, so it already had a general appeal to me. Honestly, I remember the second “viewing” a lot more. It was a weekday afternoon when I had to go home sick from work and I sprawled out across a few chairs in a mostly empty theatre waiting for a ride home. Turns out I had chicken pox for the first time ever in my life in my 20s. I thought I was going to die. That was oddly the most I remembered about Miracle.

The re-examination:

Honestly, I don’t know why I even decided to start this series in February and I didn’t just wait until March. It was hard enough just settling on Miracle for the first column. Going back over all the years that I gave myself to choose from this seemed like the only movie even worth picking that was interesting enough to talk about or that hadn’t already gone on to some kind of notoriety. This same weekend in 1984 had Unfaithfully Yours and Reckless, both of which I know are far too dull to talk about. 1989 had Her Alibi and Who’s Harry Crumb?, neither of which I could actually track down copies of. 1994 had Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which was out for obvious reasons, and I’ll Do Anything, a notorious James L. Brooks flop that’s already been spoken about plenty. Ditto 1999’s troubled Mel Gibson/Brian Helgeland collaboration Payback. My only other option from that year was the Sarah Michelle Gellar rom-com Simply Irresistible, which I long ago vowed to never ever watch again.

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So really that just left Miracle, which in a lot of ways kind of exemplifies the kind of film I would want to celebrate in this column. It’s a damned good movie that came out during a time when the very genre of historical sporting flicks was undergoing a bit of a change. Plus, you know, it’s a movie about the Olympics and a film chronicling one of only two major North American accomplishments in hockey should probably be a leading candidate when this year’s games are about to start.

I grew up in Massachusetts, and while they certainly love their hockey there, only three things ever mattered to all hockey fans: 1. The Bruins, 2. The Beanpot, 3. Winthrop native Mike Eruzione’s game winning goal to beat the Russians in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. It is possibly the most famous medal round game in Olympic history that didn’t take place in the finals, and the greatest hockey achievement for the United States squad.

The story of the famous “Miracle on Ice” was legendary around the world, since the US had been fielding nothing but atrocious losing squads year after year for world championships and the winter games. The coaching duties fell to successful University of Minnesota coach Herb Brooks (played here by Kurt Russell), a man who knew he was on a fool’s errand that few people would care about and that the only way the job would be worthwhile would be if he had complete control over picking the team. In this time before professionals were playing in the Olympics, Brooks hired a squad full of collegiate and university kids to go into a year when the Russians might not even be attending. The only major obstacle would be actually getting the team to play as a unit, thanks to bitter, overly personal rivalries of the players involved.

Miracle came out in a strange sort of middle ground for sports movies. Box office successes like Seabiscuit the year before and 2002’s The Rookie proved that there was still an audience for uplifting and genuine kinds of sports films that had their share of clichés, but also grounded themselves in a distinct, unflinching sense of reality.  But the biggest influence on sports films in this era was still 2000’s Remember the Titans, a slick looking, fast paced, Jerry Bruckheimer produced megahit that propelled itself not on the strength of its story about the first ever integrated football team in the Southern US, but by dumbing the whole thing down, pandering fully into easily written clichés about both sports and race, and setting the whole thing to a classic rock soundtrack.

Under the direction of Gavin O’ Connor (Pride and Glory, Tumbleweeds, Warrior), Miracle is a bit of an anomaly that seems like it’s trying for something more thoughtful, but has to concede somewhat to what Disney (the studio that also produced Remember the Titans) wanted their new breed of sports film to look and sound like. Miracle definitely has the classic rock and montage chops to stand alongside the best of the genre, but it’s definitely a lot more of a slow burn that people might remember it being.

At 135 minutes, O’ Connor has more than enough time of letting the major members of the team all become characters, especially team captian Eruzione (Patrick O’Brien Demsy) and the unique rivalry between Rob McClanahan (Nathan West) and Jack O’Callahan (Michael Mantenuto). There’s even a really great moment when Brooks has to cut a genuinely good player (played by Kenneth Mitchell) because there just isn’t room on the team.

In that moment, it becomes apparent that Miracle was actually a little ahead of the curve and has a lot more in common with Friday Night Lights (both the TV show and the Peter Berg directed feature that would come out later in 2004) than anything that came before it. O’Connor’s film is actively about the fine and often unsung art of team building instead of just being about going out and winning the big game. It’s quite nuanced and unafraid of quiet character moments that have nothing to do with the actual game it’s building to. Sure, the game and the specific, well known historical details are all trotted out in standard inspirational movie formatting, but the film as a whole is a lot sharper than one could give it credit for. It’s possibly the best feature about the building of a sports team since Hoosiers.

It also has the last truly exceptional performance from Kurt Russell, a man who needs to be working more than he does. Sure, he was the best thing about Tarantino’s Death Proof (which is a pretty bad movie to begin with no matter what anyone says to the contrary), but the character of Brooks allows his character to be a hard ass with a giving soul. He also nails the requisite locker room speech, letting his character’s Minnesotan accent accentuate every word perfectly. He’s one of the best examples of what an inspirational movie coach should be. He’s a model of restraint even in victory.

I guess the worst that can be said about it is also the best that can be said about it. Miracle is a film that kind of speaks for itself, never resorting to bullshitting or the conflation of facts and numbers. It’s faithful and crowd pleasing because it’s never talking down to anyone on screen or off. Maybe the very fact that it isn’t a really showy movie is what has somewhat unfairly relegated it to “Oh, yeah! I remember that now that you mention it” status.

Should we be celebrating it?: Sure! I mean, honestly why not? It’s a perfect example of a great film in an overcrowded genre. And besides, if hockey fans want a serious film about the game, it’s not like they are going to race out to see Mystery, Alaska or Youngblood. Goon is more serious than those movies are. But for hockey fans who love the game itself, Miracle is about as good as it gets and far better than the lack of a reputation it seems to have today.

Next week: Another film produced by Disney, but a far more bizarre example of one of their live action films than this one.

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