When ESPN announced that 30 For 30 would tackling the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament—the “Miracle On Ice” here in the United States—the press release touted it as an unprecedented look at the Soviet side of the rink, explaining how it felt for one of the most accomplished amateur teams in history to lose to the underdog Americans, at the height of the Cold War no less. But as anyone who pays attention to film festivals and arthouse cinema knows, “Of Miracles And Men” isn’t unprecedented at all. Director Gabe Polsky’s very good documentary Red Army played last year at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and AFI (among other fests), and has been in limited theatrical release since January. Red Army also covers the rise and fall of Soviet hockey, using the 1980 game as a pivot-point for a larger examination of the intersections of sports, politics, and economics.
So “Of Miracles And Men” has competition. But it has also advantages. The director, Jonathan Hock, has made three top-tier 30 For 30 episodes: “The Best That Never Was,” “Unguarded,” and, “Survive And Advance.” And ESPN’s access to the ABC archives means that “Of Miracles And Men” can dedicate a good-sized chunk of its two-hour running-time (or 100 minutes minus commercials) to the original broadcast of that one U.S./USSR hockey game. Hock’s documentary ultimately covers the same ground as Red Army—starting with how the Soviet teams became so powerful, and ending with what happened when the NHL tried to draft the Russian players during the collapse of communism—but the majority of the film is focused on Lake Placid.
It’s going to be hard for anyone who’s seen Red Army to avoid comparing it to “Of Miracles And Men,” but since way more people are likely to have seen the 30 For 30 episode, I’ll let Polsky’s version of the story drop for now. (I’ll have some more thoughts on the differences between the two in the stray observations.) Besides, it’s more useful to compare this new documentary to other 30 For 30s, because Hock makes good use of two organizing conceits that the series has relied on again and again: the forensic breakdown, and the homecoming.
The homecoming trip is taken by defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, returning to Lake Placid with his daughter—who’s the same age he was in 1980—and recalling the atmosphere of a place and an experience that he says has been “shrouded in fog” for him for decades. He returns to the forbidding Olympic village—since repurposed as a prison—and walks through charming downtown marketplaces that back in 1980 were populated by propagandists handing out anti-communist pamphlets. While the Olympics were going on, the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan, and President Carter was already talking about boycotting the summer games in Moscow, which meant that Fetisov and his teammates were more hated than usual. By putting an older Fetisov back at the site of his failure, kid in tow, Hock reinforces what’s been one of 30 For 30’s main themes over the years: When all the hoopla and heated rivalries fade, these are all just games, played by people who grow older and go on to have rich lives outside the arena.
The humanizing element is especially strong in “Of Miracles And Men,” which makes the gutsy choice to omit interviews with the U.S. hockey team, to avoid building any sympathy for the scrappy Americans. This documentary really is the Soviets’ story, framing it as a heartbreaking defeat for a close-knit, admirably disciplined group of guys who’d spent a decade proving themselves in international competition. Hock makes it clear that Fetisov and his mates weren’t the stereotypical Russian athletic automatons. They were trained by the innovative, big-hearted coach Anatoly Tarasov, who emphasized brotherhood, and developed a more strategic, athletic kind of hockey informed by his love of chess and the circus. The first third of “Of Miracles And Men” is all about how for years it was the Soviets who were underdogs of a kind. In the 1970s, they were kicked around by Canadian thugs in an exhibition series; and they were forced to cling to their love of hockey and each other when the government fired Tarasov and installed the more confrontational Viktor Tikhonov as their new coach.
All of this is the set-up for the “What went wrong?” that takes up the middle third of the film. This is something that 30 For 30 has always done well: examining the small decisions and bad breaks that have unexpected repercussions. Here, Hock’s interviewees linger over a fluke goal at the end of the first period of the U.S./USSR game that led to goalie Vladislav Tertiak being pulled by Tikhonov, which may have given the Americans a better chance to pull ahead later. Then, during the tense final 10 minutes, with the U.S. up 4-3, the former Soviet players vividly describe their shock and desperation. Meanwhile, Hock keeps using the audio from the Soviet broadcast, where the play-by-play man calls the U.S. “the host team” and signs off by saying, flatly, “With that we are finishing our commentary.”
“Of Miracles And Men” isn’t as successful with the post-game. In the end, this one loss to the U.S. turned out to be just a minor setback for the Soviets, who would go back to dominating the sport in the 1980s, and then would see a lot of their players go on to successful NHL careers once the USSR faltered. Hock doesn’t bring as much urgency or poignancy to that part of the story, which comes off as too rushed, and lacking in perspective. (It’s here where the decision to rely mostly on the voices of the former Soviet players proves too limiting.) But overall, this is a well-constructed film with several strong threads, damning the sin of overconfidence and championing the power of team-play. As Tarasov put it, on a one-to-one basis, no Soviet player could’ve bested Bobby Hull. But put the right five guys against five Bobby Hulls? Well, as team sports have proved over and over, anything is possible.
- I’m glad I got to see both Red Army and “Of Miracles And Men,” but six months or so from now, when both documentaries are widely available, if someone asks me which one to watch, I’ll go with Red Army. It’s about 25 minutes shorter, yet more comprehensive, with more insight into the Soviet style of play and more detail about the complicated politics behind Russian players moving to the NHL. Most importantly, Polsky makes Fetisov into more of a character. In the 30 For 30, he’s humbly heroic; in Red Army, he’s cantankerous and funny, but no less of a lovable bad-ass.
- How great was Al Michaels? Even though “Of Miracles And Men” uses more of the Soviet play-by-play than ABC’s, the few snippets of Michaels throughout are extraordinary, from his stage-setting intro—capped by him admitting, “Manifestly, it is a hockey game”—to the way he keeps counting down the seconds when the U.S. is close to clinching. This is the game that made Michaels’ career, and it’s easy to see why.
- I don’t know if this was just a problem with the sound mix on the advance screener I watched, but Jeff Daniels’ narration struck me as a little too quiet, and lacking in energy. Those of you who watched the final version ESPN aired tonight, let me know whether Daniels sounded okay.
- Kudos to Hock for asking Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov the question I’m sure a lot of us were thinking throughout this documentary: “Did you see Miracle?”