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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 15, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Miracle and Great Sports Movies

Admittedly, it was a small overnight snowfall Sunday night, with a cold sunny Monday immediately after. But still, don't you think Greensboro is getting better at dealing with the snow?

Traffic kept moving. Roads that needed it were plowed. The grocery stores hadn't been stripped like people thought there wouldn't be food again for a year. People didn't even drive stupidly, at least not where I could see. All in all, maybe we're getting good at this snow thing.

Just in time for global warming, eh?

*

In my list of great sports films there are two categories:

1. Feel-good laugh-and-weepers, like The Bad News Bears, The Longest Yard, and The Replacements, in which teams that have everything stacked against them discover that through love, loyalty, hard luck, and really good writing, they can make us care about the outcome of imaginary games.

2. Mythical sports-as-religion films, like The Natural and Field of Dreams and, arguably, The Rookie.

But there's a third category of sports films that I normally don't think of mostly because I don't think any of the movies in this category ever achieved greatness:

3. Sports biographies.

Sure, Pride of the Yankees starred Gary Cooper and all that, but if you didn't already care about Lou Gehrig and baseball, would it be a great movie? A good one. A decent performance. But not a great movie. Not a see-twice movie. Not a stay-up-late-because-it-happened-to-be-on-cable movie.

And that's the best of them. (Unless you count A League of Their Own, which I don't, because it's so fictionalized that it belongs in category 1.

Until now. Miracle.

It stars Kurt Russell, it's a Disney production -- I assumed it was going to be a cheap sentimental docudrama about the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

But for the first time ever, that I know of, we had a sports biopic where the writing (Eric Guggenheim) didn't rely on the audience already caring about either the sport or the people.

Because I don't care about hockey. My not-caring about hockey is deep and abiding. I don't like the ugly fighting, I don't like the behavior of the fans, and I don't even care for the skating -- to me it's Disney On Ice with thugs.

Here's what this movie achieved: By the end, I loved everybody in the movie, I thought hockey was a fascinating and beautiful game, and I thought that Kurt Russell had to give the finest performance of his career because if he hadn't, this brilliant, beautiful, and real ensemble cast would have stolen the movie right out from under him.

Yes, there's a lot of talk about athletes needing to "build team spirit" and "play with heart," but by building the story detail by detail, we find out just how teams are made and just how hearts are found.

The film only concentrates on a handful of players, but it doesn't feel that way -- you feel like you've spent months training with these guys and you can't stand it when somebody's cut from the team or injured. I was surprised, coming out of the theater into a world of ice and snow, to realize that I wasn't wearing skates.

OK, that's an exaggeration. But my praise for this movie is not. Kurt Russell sustains the best midwestern accent I've ever seen -- but you hardly notice it because he makes this man real. Which is a very hard thing to do when you're playing somebody who really is real.

I mean, there's actual footage of the real guy saying some of the stuff Kurt Russell was supposed to say in the movie. How intimidating is that?

But he brought it off; and Patricia Clarkson is radiant as his wife, who is supportive but also draws the line about how much should be sacrificed for the game.

(And the guy who portrays the star Russian player never gets to say a word -- but he was perfect. I can't even find his name, because it's a non-speaking role.)

So finally there is a great sports movie in category 3. Not just a movie about a great sporting event, or a great team, or great players. I mean a great movie, and I hope you'll see it.


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