When it comes to hockey movies, Miracle is as big a winner as its heroes.

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When it comes to hockey movies, Miracle is as big a winner as its heroes.

When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, consisting of twenty raw college boys, beat the seemingly invincible, state-hardened Soviets and went on to win the gold medal at Lake Placid, the event was regarded, even in palm-lined Miami and iceless Honolulu, as the most amazing feat in U.S. Olympic history. This was not David knocking off Goliath but David blowing away the entire Kremlin. Elvis was dead. We were still reeling from the scandal of Watergate. The Cold War continued apace, and President Jimmy Carter, tangled in the bewilderments of recession and the Iranian hostage mess, talked openly about a national "crisis of confidence." So when an astonished Mike Eruzione slammed the winning U.S. shot into the back of the Russian net, a kind of redemption rained down from sea to shining sea.

Twenty-four years later, we find ourselves asking new, even more troubling questions about national purpose and the condition of our collective psyche. So it can't hurt to revisit the '80 Winter Olympics for a couple of hours and bask again in a moment of unqualified glory. That agenda underlies Gavin O'Connor's deft, exciting Miracle, an unabashed flag-waver that does for its young hockey players what John Wayne used to do for the Marines and lifts all of us, too, onto the boys' cloud of belief.

In the hockey team's case, the company commander was a flinty, no-nonsense coach from Minnesota named Herb Brooks, who is portrayed here with such uncanny accuracy by Kurt Russell that actual members of the 1980 team will likely cringe in pain all over again as Russell re-enacts Brooks' ruthless drills and scrimmages. For the square-jawed actor, a former minor-league baseball player who's gone 0-for-3 lately with Dark Blue, Vanilla Sky and 3,000 Miles to Graceland, Miracle is a redemptive shot in its own right. For my money, it's the performance of Russell's career.

In 1979, Brooks had just seven months to build a team of amateurs capable of mixing it up with the world's best. Immature and seething with old college rivalries, his kids were a fractious bunch, and the striking cast of unknowns assembled by director O'Connor (Tumbleweeds) perfectly captures their unruliness and youthful daring. It helps that most of these actors really can chase down a puck. Among the young principals, only Eddie Cahill has no hockey props, but he's just right as the team's famously dogged goalie, Jim Craig.

Russell embodies Brooks' relentless will and the disturbing force of his regrets. As a player, Brooks was cut from the 1960 U.S. team that went on to win the Olympic gold medal. The U.S.S.R. squad, a brutally efficient juggernaut, took the gold in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976, and Brooks was fiercely, almost unnaturally, driven to beat the Russkies.

Even if most feel-good sports movies make you gag, this one will likely raise a lump in your throat as director of photography Daniel Stoloff and his nimble team of camera operators reproduce the thrilling rough-and-tumble of the game.

The real-life postscript is bittersweet: Before the real Herb Brooks could see the movie, he was killed in a car accident. In times of trouble, maybe we get only one happy ending.

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