Directed by Jonathan Hock
Seemingly each year Hollywood manages to take the same idea and do it twice. So I suppose I should be none too surprised to find that ESPNs 30 for 30 film Of Miracles and Men tackles the same subject matter of the documentary Red Army, also releasing this year. Of course, unlike the Armageddon/Deep Impact, Volcano/Dante’s Peak dual films, the subject matter explored in these documentaries is far more interesting to me. In 1980, the US Men’s Olympic hockey team crafted the “Miracle on Ice”, defeating the hated Soviet Union team who was the best in the world. For a moment in time, the college kids assembled in Lake Placid were the best in the world, but what Jonathan Hock explores is not how those kids got there, but how the moment became so big. Without the powerful Soviets, that night in Lake Placid would have been like any other hockey game.
By taking the opposite point of view for a game so iconic in the history of United States sports, and so familiar to even the most casual American sports fan, Hock is able to breathe completely new life into a story that has been told countless times before. But not only that, what Hock is doing here is humanizing the enemy, giving faces and voices to the men that were so hated by Americans at the time for the simple reason that they were Soviets. Sport is a means to have fun, and to compete, but many times sports can be twisted to pit country versus country, to signify battle, or even diplomatic relations. To place these young men into the arena to do battle for an entire country is not fair to them, or to their country. These men just wanted to play hockey, to have fun, and above all, to win.
To witness the development of not just the players on that fated 1980 Olympic team, but the development of the entire sport in the Soviet Union was by far a more educational and more entertaining segment than most films in the series even think about. Hock has outdone himself in terms of ambition with this film and it all starts with the serious legwork required to hunt down the hours of wonderful archival footage of the team, but to get the interviews with as many players and personalities as are captured in the film. If there was one major misstep it was having star player Slava Fetisov relive the “Miracle on Ice” by visiting Lake Placid with his daughter. It felt like the only conventional element in an otherwise unique entry into the series.
As Canada’s national sport, hockey was something completely new to Russians after World War II. The Russians, in an attempt to prove communist dominance, built up their sports programs much the same as the West Germans. Victory on the field, or in this case on the ice, proved a superior culture off it. But to be completely new to a sport simply afforded the Russians a fresh perspective on how to play the game, which meant revolutionizing it, and becoming the best team in the world on the way. In exhibition matches, the Russians not only kept up with the stars of the NHL, but beat them, proving the worth of not just the team, but the new style of play.
After enjoying Of Miracles and Men as much as I did, I am very curious to see Red Army to see what varying perspective it provides, for while I enjoyed Hock’s take on the subject, it did feels somewhat high level, a perfect introductory course into the history of Russian hockey. However, after that appetizer, I am undeniably ready for the advanced course that goes more in depth on the politics and personalities of the organization, the tensions and shortcomings, the victories and defeats. For my money, Jonathan Hock has had more success within the 30 for 30 framework than almost any other filmmaker involved with the series with the exception of the Zimbalist brothers. But that is saying something given the continued quality of sports documentaries produced by the series. I hope Hock’s next, Fastball, is as good as the rest.
*** – Very Good