Inspiring story of unlikely Olympic heroes is told with restraint and impressive skill in sure-fire crowd-pleaser that's bound to bring home the gold as a long-distance B.O. performer. Even auds unable to differentiate between slapshots and sweep checks will be engrossed by celebrated victory by the U.S. hockey team in 1980 Winter Olympics.

An inspiring story of unlikely Olympic heroes is told with effective restraint and impressive skill in “Miracle,” a sure-fire crowd-pleaser that’s bound to bring home the gold as a long-distance B.O. performer. Even auds unable to differentiate between slapshots and sweep checks will be engrossed by lucidly detailed account of the celebrated “Miracle on Ice” victory by the U.S. hockey team against their vaunted Soviet opponents in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Indie director Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds”) makes his first mainstream splash by managing the difficult feat of hitting all the right emotional buttons without ever pushing too hard or letting anything get out of hand. “Miracle” abounds in sports-pic conventions, but even the moldiest clichés seem, if not newly minted, then at least freshly refurbished.

Key to drama’s success is the artful underplaying by Kurt Russell in the lead role of Herb Brooks, the U. of Minnesota coach recruited by U.S. Olympic officials to ramrod the 1980 hockey team. Taking his cue from the straightforward script credited to Eric Guggenheim, Russell resists temptation to render Brooks as the stereotypical gruff-but-lovable figure. Instead, he plays the coach as a sternly obsessive taskmaster who frankly warns players that he wants to win games, not make friends, during his authoritarian tenure.

While stopping well short of making the coach an unfeeling autocrat — he seems sincerely upset whenever Brooks must cut a player from the team — Russell remains rigorously disciplined in his avoidance of easy, audience-pleasing sentimentality, even during scenes with co-star Patricia Clarkson, who makes the most of a thankless role as Brooks’ supporting (but not infinitely patient) wife. Another plus: Russell nails Brooks’ Midwestern accent so persuasively that, about 10 minutes into pic, aud stops paying attention to his speech pattern and simply accepts it as another character trait (not unlike Brooks’ rather unfortunate penchant for madras pants).

Although “Miracle” clocks in at 135 minutes, O’Connor maintains a satisfyingly brisk pace while detailing recruitment, training and Olympic trials of the U.S. team against the backdrop of 1979-1980 turmoil. Starting with a smartly concise montage under the opening credits, pic positions then-contemporary historical events — the U.S. oil shortage, the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — as an ongoing counterpoint to ice hockey activity.

Indeed, the very hiring of Brooks — a coach with many NCAA championships to his credit — is viewed in terms of Cold War realpolitik, as U.S. officials admit the propaganda value of fielding a credible team of gutsy amateurs against the seemingly undefeatable Soviet Union pucksters. Eventual match-up between the U.S. and Soviet teams is hyped — much to Brooks’ uneasy displeasure — as a politically-charged event not unlike Joe Louis’ 1938 heavyweight bout with Max Schmeling (recounted in Barak Goodman’s “The Fight” docu unveiled at Sundance Film Festival and due for TV airing).

Early on, Brooks establishes an audacious gameplan for defeating the Soviets: a new style of play emphasizing group effort over individual ability, merging the best of Russian, Canadian and European approaches. “I’m not looking for the best players,” he explains during tryouts. “I’m looking for the right players.” In scenes that often recall basic training exercises in war pics, Brooks methodically (and, yes, mercilessly) drives his players to push themselves to the point of exhaustion, and then a little further. By doing so, he strips away their individualistic impulses while forcing them to act as a single unit of fluid, resourceful athleticism.

Much like the real-life characters they portray, well-cast supporting players — many of them amateur or semipro athletes without previous acting credits — behave more like a seamless ensemble than a collection of distinctive personalities. There are a few standout performances: Eddie Cahill as goalie Jim Craig, Patrick O’Brien Demsey as team captain Mike Eruzione and Billy Schneider as his real-life father, Buzz Schneider, the team’s left wing. But even these actors — along with Noah Emmerich as assistant coach Craig Patrick, and Kenneth Welsh as team doctor Doc Nagobads — are subordinate to overall narrative design.

Hockey sequences are believably and often thrillingly choreographed by technical advisers Christopher V. Nelson, Ryan Walter, J. Rob Miller, Cal Wrenn and Jim Babcock. Final face-off with Soviet team (underscored by a recording of the actual color commentary by Al Michaels, Ken Dryden and Jim McKay) is everything it to needs to be to transform even cynical viewers into cheering fans.

Production designer John Willet and costumer Tom Bronson walk a fine line between verisimilitude and self-consciousness while vividly evoking period flavor. (Brooks’ pants aren’t the only sartorial eyesores reminding auds that the late ’70s-early ’80s was an awful time for men’s fashion.) Other period details range from slyly subtle (a snippet of the “Rockford Files” theme, a few appropriate Top 40 hits) to unexpectedly moving. Jim Craig’s famous victory lap with an American flag is predictably affecting. More surprising, however, is the emotional response generated by the use of an inspiring speech by then-President Jimmy Carter — a speech, it should be noted, that was criticized as too downbeat in its own time.

Miracle

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Mayhem Pictures production. Produced by Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray. Executive producers: Justis Greene, Ross Greenburg. Co-producer, Greg O'Connor. Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Screenplay, Eric Guggenheim.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Daniel Stoloff; editor, John Gilroy; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, John Willett; art director, Ross Dempster; set decorator, Mary Lou Storey; costume designer, Tom Bronson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Michael McGee; hockey technical advisers, Christopher V. Nelson, Ryan Walter, J. Rob Miller, Cal Wrenn, Jim Babcock; sports coordinator, Mark Ellis, Reel Sports Solutions, Inc.; associate producer, Jonathan Mone; assistant director, Pete Whyte; second unit director, Vic Armstrong; second unit camera, Michael A. Benson, Philip Linzey; casting, Randi Hiller, Sarah Halley Finn. Reviewed at Edwards Greenway Palace 24, Houston, Jan. 31, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 135 MIN.

With

Herb Brooks - Kurt Russell Patty Brooks - Patricia Clarkson Craig Patrick - Noah Emmerich Walter Bush - Sean McCann Doc Nagobads - Kenneth Welsh Jim Craig - Eddie Cahill Mike Eruzione - Patrick - O'Brien Demsey Jack O'Callahan - Michael Mantenuto Rob McClanahan - Nathan West Ralph Cox - Kenneth Mitchell Mark Johnson - Eric Peter-Kaiser Dave Silk - Bobby Hanson Mike Ramsey - Joseph Cure Buzz Schneider - Billy Schneider

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