It's hard not to know how this story ends. The climax of the real life story took place in February 1980, when the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team - its all-star roster composed of college players, most of whom had first met the previous June -- went up against the Russian Olympic Hockey Team -- made up of seasoned veterans who had been playing together for about a decade. The scene was the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The members of the U.S. team were very much the underdogs.
Everything about this film is well done. There's no one and nothing to fault. The acting is good, the skating is good, the ice action is nicely caught by constantly moving cameras. But ... but ... how many more of these movies about underdogs in sports must we have thrust at us? Weren't the five Rocky films enough? What about Hoosiers or The Longest Yard or Tin Cup or For Love of the Game? Sorry, I can't think of any underdog movies about curling.
If you've seen too many of these -- I have -- it's probably not necessary to go through it once more. One reason is because you've already seen it. Another is that it goes on and on, with more padding of the story than there is under the uniforms of the hockey players, and an unnecessarily long running time of two and a quarter hours. (OK, so there are indeed a couple of faults.)
But the lead actors are not among them. Kurt Russell deftly plays the team's head coach, Herb Brooks, a man who's carried around a dream of being part of a winning Olympic hockey team for a lot of years. He takes on the part of the determined fellow with great determination, talking too fast to his team, yelling at them when they make a mistake, relentlessly pushing them into becoming a fighting unit. A late-night bullying sequence at a darkened rink is fascinating.
Russell's storm is complemented by Noah Emmerich's calm, in his portrayal of assistant coach Craig Patrick. Compared to Russell's intense character, Emmerich takes on the more difficult task of portraying a much quieter character who has hardly any dialogue.
And in much the same manner of matching calm with a storm, the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson plays Brooks' wife Patty. She's left to suffer at home, taking care of the kids while dad is busy coaching, coaching, coaching at the rink, or else while he stays up till the wee hours watching, watching, watching old hockey films, always searching for weaknesses in other teams.
The film concentrates on how the team slowly comes together under the coach's often brutal tutelage. But it also keeps veering away from that story. Sometimes it pauses to listen to a song of the times on the radio or looks at a TV screen to check up on the heated political climate -- the Cold War was still in full swing. In one of those samples of padding, it presents a rivalry between a couple of the players that starts with a story about settling an old score and ends in fisticuffs. That scene would have been fine, but the incident is never mentioned again, nothing like it happens between any other players, and it ends up being totally unconnected to the rest of the film.
Another element, one that actually could have been played up more, involves the coach's dilemma about having to cut his team from 26 players down to 20. He aches and moans over it -- to his assistant coach, to his wife -- and then all but one of those cuts aren't even shown. They're all done off-camera.
Of all the characters, the only one who gets nearly enough screen time is the coach. He's shown in good moods and bad moods and both in and out of emotional control. He even gets a backstory about why he's so desperate to win this time. But nothing is explained about his usually smiling assistant coach - and, as his wife, Clarkson is so far in the background that she gets even less dialogue than Emmerich. That's a pity, if only because she has one of the warmest, most soothing voices in the business.
Once it all builds up to the obligatory big speech just before the biggest game, the film unleashes all of the action that's only been hinted at or shown in small doses up to that point. And that last game is a good one, literally a blur of action. It's exciting and it's excitingly shot. But it takes an awfully long time to get to it. By then, it's too late for surprises - as if the ending will be a surprise to anyone.