Dir. Gavin O’Connor. Starring Kurt Brooks, Patrick O’Brien Demsey, Eddie Cahill
Miracle and Argo make an interesting pair. The events of the two films happen almost concurrently; their climaxes (the Canadian Caper leaves the airport in Tehran and the Miracle on Ice) occurred within about three weeks of one another. One movie is a Disney movie, one of the endless number of the Remember the Titans family; Argo is very much an Oscarbait drama, in the same vein as Frost/Nixon or Zodiac. To me though, it’s Miracle and not Argo that is the superior film about Americans regaining some semblance of national pride after Vietnam. That’s no small thing, either. Both movies play the same stops, push to make the audience feel the same kind of things. They begin with a seemingly impossible task where the eyes of the nation are simultaneously on them and overlooking them. In the case of Argo, it’s more cut-and-dried; the nation is focusing on the Iran hostage crisis but is unaware of the CIA’s maneuverings to get the escaped State Department folks out. Miracle relies more on Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” to set the tone; the eyes of the nation are on what feels like a long losing streak, while no one expects its amateur hockey team to be the ones to turn it around.
The stakes of Argo are simply less interesting stakes than those in Miracle, which is frankly incredible considering that no one will die in Miracle if the United States doesn’t beat the Soviet Union, and that the whole point of Argo is that if the escapees from the embassy are found by the Iranian government, they’ll be executed. Argo makes the film matter by making the mission matter, and while viewers understand that America will lose face if it fails, it’s a negative result. The best thing that can happen is that some federal employees come home; the worst thing that can happen is a public relations disaster. Miracle makes the best thing that can happen a state triumph that would have made Wagner lose his mind; Miracle makes the worst thing that can happen a bad loss to a heavily favored hockey team. If we were to measure this difference in prospect language, we would take about ceilings and floors. Argo has the higher floor, but Miracle has the much higher ceiling, and in a movie where the result unfolds over two hours and not over the course of a player’s decade-long career, ceilings matter more.
The best sequence in Miracle is probably the set around Christmas 1979, which is a good time for scenes. Miracle came out when I was thirteen years old. I had a vague idea of the Carter administration – stagflation, the oil embargo, the Camp David Accords, the hostage crisis – but didn’t appreciate the national feeling. (It’s fitting that Miracle was released in 2004, really; that year was not unlike something out of the Carter years, except when Carter was the president there was a human being in the Oval Office.) That scene, where Herb’s players are playing football in the snow and Herb is driving home, listening to the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, provides the feeling that the players are on the cusp of something. I’ve gone in on this speech on the blog before, but what that scene does, cutting between Jim Craig playing football in his Santa suit, or Mike Eruzione sliding down a snowy hill, and Herb Brooks in his station wagon, is connect these people to the rest of their country.
Miracle is the about improbability, the story of a Cold War Event coming about thanks to a bunch of peach-fuzzed college kids in upstate New York, and how that improbability changes people for the better. It’s not about bureaucrats and the federal government avoiding embarrassment, like Argo is. It’s about normal people, like Herb Brooks and Mike Eruzione, or Jim Craig’s dad, or the people who come to Patti Brooks’ party, or the folks ice skating at an outdoor rink in Lake Placid. In this sequence, national circumstances (via Carter) are tied together to individual people who will make a difference to individual people across thousands of miles. It’s a little bit Cincinnatus. Without that scene, we’d have to be told by Walter or Patti Brooks or Al Michaels or somebody that this game was important – and they do tell us. Everyone says it eventually, and some people even say it over and over again. The most memorable scene of the movie features Kurt Russell telling his players how important their game against the Soviets is. This isn’t a Tarkovsky film. But it’s a smart enough film to show us first before it ever tells.
Outside that scene, Miracle is more or less glossy jock-movie fare. So is Argo. Miracle is at least in command of its genre.