Movies: Miracle on Ice Offered an Escape From 1979

by | Feb 20, 2004 | CULTURE

The so-called miracle on ice only felt like a miracle because it represented the central conflict of the worlds bloodiest century: between individualism and collectivism and, for once, the good prevailed.

The thrilling 1980 Olympic hockey game between amateur Americans and athletes trained under the communist Soviet Union is rich with cinematic possibility. While Walt Disney Pictures’s Miracle falls short of the history mark, Kurt Russell’s performance recreates enough of the glory to honor the game that unified the nation.

The year was 1980. The economy was miserable. Lines of cars at gasoline stations were as long as the interest rates were high. The U.S. embassy in Iran had been attacked by jihad Moslems, Americans had been seized, held hostage and tortured for months and America had neither retaliated by force nor rescued its citizens.

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and, in protest, President Carter boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. There was a question whether then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev would withdraw the USSR’s participation from the Winter Olympics in America, but the Reds decided to send their professional-level athletes, vowing to defeat America on our own soil at Lake Placid, New York. Facing off against a lineup of players trained under totalitarian rule — a team that dominated the Olympics for decades — was an overwhelming challenge to the Americans. A humiliating loss to the Soviets at the Olympics looked like a sure thing.

America won instead. Almost 25 years later, sports historians credit Coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) with one of the greatest upset victories in sports. Miracles director, Gavin O’Connor, rightly put Brooks, a former player who had been cut from the 1960 Olympic team at Squaw Valley, California, in the center of the rink. Russell is commanding.

If only Miracle were as focused on a proper presentation of history. Coach Brooks, who died before Miracle made it to the screen, might have been inspired by President Carter’s infamous malaise speech, as Miracle suggests, but the rest of the wounded nation saw it as a slap in the face by an incompetent president. Carter’s admonition that Americans were experiencing a crisis in confidence was an evasion of his primary responsibility to protect Americans. That he had failed to do so reflected his own lack of confidence.

Worse, Disney’s Miracle downplays references to communism and Islam — which were converging threats in 1980. Though the Berlin Wall would be torn down by the end of the decade, revealing a crumbling evil empire behind the proletarian façade, communism would soon be replaced by religious fundamentalists as the worlds worst tyranny.

The movie assiduously avoids any suggestion that the Soviet menace — having seized Hungary, Vietnam, Afghanistan and eastern Europe — posed a real threat to the United States. Ridiculously, the U.S. teams doctor compares a pair of squabbling American players to the Cold War. Miracle trivializes the radical Moslem seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran — which signaled the world’s first jihad state — though the attack on Americans was a crucial motive for the passionate, deafening cries “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” that transformed an athletic achievement into American cultural history. Depriving the game of this historical context reduces a powerful moment of American patriotism to near-mindless chants.

Kurt Russell, as the intense coach who refused to compromise his standards, is the best reason to see Miracle — other than the fact that this spectacle actually happened, thanks to the late Herb Brooks and the young men who were Team U.S.A. It was a breathtaking, symbolic victory over the evil of communism and Islamic jihad — it was a repudiation of the idea that a nation that forces its athletes to compete at gunpoint is more powerful than a nation of self-made men — and it remains an exceptionally exhilarating athletic triumph.

Carter’s ineptness would sap Americas renewed confidence only weeks later when a mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran failed. Yet, in a world of thugs, tribes and ayatollahs, beating the Soviets mattered deeply to the nation. The so-called miracle on ice only felt like a miracle because it represented the central conflict of the worlds bloodiest century: between individualism and collectivism and, for once, the good prevailed.

Scott Holleran's writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Classic Chicago, and The Advocate. The cultural fellow with Arts for LA interviewed the man who saved Salman Rushdie about his act of heroism and wrote the award-winning “Roberto Clemente in Retrospect” for Pittsburgh Quarterly. Scott Holleran lives in Southern California. Read his fiction at ShortStoriesByScottHolleran.substack.com and read his non-fiction at ScottHolleran.substack.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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