There are five special words that have the ability to change and define an entire film. Brushed along the screen in white writing right before the first scene, they come either as an expected or anticipated surprise. “Based on a true story.”
The phrase is a potent catalyst that stirs up excitement and inspiration while forcing even the most cynical moviegoer to sit-up and pay attention.
Basing a film of a true story takes the viewer outside the realm of film and television and instead plants them in a real world; a world they themselves live in. You’re no longer watching a film, but reliving an experience.
However, with great power comes great responsibility, and the once awe-inspiring phrase we once trusted, is increasingly losing its novelty.
If you’re anything like me, the first thing you do after watching a film based on a true story is look up the movie afterwards, cross-checking the historical accuracy and establishing what really happened and what didn’t. Nowadays, these films miss so many key events, add-in new ones, change spoken verbatim and present an entirely contrasting message. There is one, however, that stands out from the crowd; Miracle.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor in 2004, Miracle is an American sports docudrama recapturing the story of the United States Men’s Ice Hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. For those of you who don’t know your sports history, the Olympics were held at a time when professional athletes were forbidden from competing. That left the U.S. Ice Hockey team’s head coach, Herb Brooks, to field a team of amateurs, mainly playing at College level, to play against a host of other big teams. Most notable of those teams was the Soviet Union. Comprised of world-class players, the Soviets had won six of the last seven gold medals at the Winter Olympics. In that tenure, they had won twenty-seven games, drawn one and lost one. To make matters worse, just months before the Winter Olympics, the Soviet’s beat a fully professional NHL All-Star team in a friendly game 6-0.
Sounds like a sports report, but all of this comes within just the first twenty minutes of the film. And remember, 1980 was the height of the Cold War, with Soviet and United States tensions at their pinnacle.
Knowing the weight of a nation is on their shoulders, Herb Brooks, now one of the most famous coaches in any American sport, and his crew of wannabe all-stars set out on the journey of a lifetime as they advance through the qualifying stages and into the Winter Olympics. During that journey, they were thumped by the Soviets 10-3 in a warm-up fixture.
Once in the Olympics however, Herb’s superior knowledge of the game brought the United States unprecedented glory.
His European style of play and his hard pressed, no nonsense coaching regime, brought those amateur players to a professional level.
From the name of the film you can probably guess the end result. The U.S. defeated the Soviets in the semi-finals 4-3 thanks to a goal from captain Mike Eruzione with just ten minutes to play. They then went on to beat Finland in the final and win the Gold Medal. It is perhaps one of the greatest sporting events in American history.
Keeping in mind all this drama is presented in just an hour and a half of pure cinematic gold, you might wonder how accurate the film really is.
To give you an idea, O’Connor and his directing team decided that they would not use any pre-trained actors for the film. Instead, the hired a plethora of fit, young Ice Hockey players and taught them how to act. O’Connor quoted that it was easier to teach hockey players to act, than to teach actors to play hockey. This decision gave the film an immense sense of rawness and realism, as you weren’t drowned in the cheesiness of one-liners but rather the emotion of a true sportsman.
Secondly, O’Connor had the real Brooks, played by Kurt Russell in the film, stand by his side every step of the way, to intervene whenever there was misrepresentation, a wrong line, a dodgy fact or just poorly played hockey! While this is something that many would look past, it made Russell’s delivery even more emotional, inspirational and ultimately real.
Lastly, and the crew worked so flawlessly on this detail that it gives me goose bumps just writing about it, every goal scored, every camera angle used, every line of commentary, was matched up exactly with its real life counterpart. This meant take after take for the actors, extreme precision and patience. They even brought in the commentator who made the call twenty years ago! All of this makes every scene, every goal, every special moment, feel like 1980.
What all of this attention to detail creates is the reliving of an old experience. Not just a film, but an experience. For those who witnessed this event in real life, the film was scary to watch as they felt like it was happening right before their eyes all over again. I’m not even American, yet at the end of the yet movie I was proud, patriotic and inspired. It brings a tear to your eye, not in that melancholy way, but in the inspirational way that shows just how powerful and transcending sport can be, especially in a time when the world was so obsessed with conflict.
No other actor could have played Brooks but Kurt Russell and no actor could have created the sense of realism those hockey players, turned actors, created throughout the film. One of the most purest, most inspiring films you will ever have the pleasure of watching, a must see for sports lovers and moviegoers alike.