Offering a fascinating window into the other side of the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” ESPN’s “30 for 30” outdoes itself with “Of Miracles and Men,” which looks at the astonishing 1980 Olympic upset in Lake Placid not from the perspective of the U.S. team but rather that of the seemingly unbeatable Soviet juggernaut. Essentially a protracted history of hockey within the Soviet Union – and by extension, the importance of sports under the regime – it’s a story replete with remarkable subplots and intriguing characters. Given how rarely ESPN adorns itself with journalistic honor, these gold-worthy docs remain their own minor miracle.
Although it’s 35 years later, those involved recall events as if they happened yesterday. Narrated by Jeff Daniels and directed by Jonathan Hock, the doc sets up a dichotomy between the two coaches of the Soviet hockey machine: Anatoli Tarasov, an emotional fellow who built and devised the enterprise, virtually creating a new version of the game; and his successor, Viktor Tikhonov (who died late last year), a workmanlike bureaucrat described by one of his players as “a man of the system.”
“Of Miracles” breaks down into roughly three chapters, starting with how the Soviets became a dominant force in international play, including four straight Olympic golds prior to the 1980 Games, and a shellacking of Canadian pros in their first meeting. That made the U.S. victory – 10 days after the Soviet team trounced them in an exhibition game – all the more stunning.
The second section is devoted, at some length, to the game itself, including Tikhonov’s impulsive decision to bench his star goalie, and the players’ overconfidence; and finally, the aftermath, which pivots to Slava Fetisov and his heroic struggle to become the first Soviet player allowed to go pro by joining the National Hockey League.
Any one of these threads would probably be fodder for a movie to balance the U.S. version, “Miracle,” which one of the Soviet players says, hilariously, that he has absolutely no interest in seeing. Indeed, meeting these once-fearsome players now puts a grandfatherly, humanizing twist on the proceedings.
Similarly, there’s a wonderful juxtaposition of how the game resonated within the two countries, cutting from Al Michaels’ buoyant “Do you believe in miracles?” call of the U.S. victory to audio of the Soviet announcers, whose disappointment, even without subtitles, is as thick as Siberian permafrost. There’s also the realization that these elite Soviet athletes were deprived the kind of lucrative careers their talent could have yielded, beyond serving the greater glory of the motherland.
If there’s a quibble, it’s in the use of a device these ESPN docs have employed too often – bringing Fetisov back to the scene of the crime, as it were, to reminisce with his grown daughter. Sure, there’s inherent drama in these staged moments, but they detract from the overall experience, especially with the rich treasure trove of video that’s available.
Still, “Miracles and Men” is a potent reminder that as much as we might like to reduce opponents and enemies to black-hatted stereotypes, there were flesh-and-blood men underneath those red uniforms – and that the joy of victory, to quote an old line, invariably comes with the agony of defeat.
Finding that humanity in sport, even in unexpected quadrants, is what these “30 for 30” docs do at their best. And for those who often lament ESPN’s broader impact on the sports world, it is, indeed, almost enough to make you believe in miracles.