Documentary Review: Of Miracles and Men
Rating: 4 Stars
“When I was 15 years old I first played in the Western country. And I feel kind of everyone was against us for one reason. We was born in a certain place.”
The 30 for 30 documentary directed by Jonathan Hock begins with these powerful words spoken by Soviet defenseman Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov.
The best sports stories are human stories. Stories that we connect with on an emotional level. The highest mark of a good film or documentary is that the experience will leave you asking questions of yourself and of the world around you.
It’s especially ironic after hearing many years the constant refrain, “keep politics out of sports”, that some of the most powerful moments in sports were directly tied to political upheaval.
The nature of sport reveals the best and the worst within us. Those that are able to take a step back and acknowledge the highs and the lows are dealt a great deal of wisdom.
On the surface, Of Miracles and Men details the drug of overconfidence plaguing a world-beating force that was the 1980 Soviet hockey team. A squad whose formation is mystical within itself. The Soviet’s backup goalie astutely points out that as athletes, they are still tied to their emotions. In America, the Soviets were framed as robots and machines.
Their robotic moniker was a tribute to their militaristic discipline instilled by the national team’s coach, Viktor Tikhonov. But a disciplined approach to the game of hockey wasn’t what made the Soviets the best.
It started with creativity and freedom. Ingenuity. It started with a man named Anatoli Tarasov. The father of Russian hockey, and by my accounts, the innovator of the modern hockey game we still see today. I could’ve watched a Tarasov documentary I was so fascinated by his story.
Tarasov worked his players hard like Tikhonov but approached the game of hockey with a sense of love and grace. Tarasov made the distinction that the skaters who didn’t have the puck were as important as the puck handler. The puck handler feeds off his teammates rather than vice versa.
It’s a powerful sentiment about togetherness and unity.
Under Tarasov’s leadership, the Soviets became a dominant force in international hockey. They remained so when Tikhonov took the reigns. They were a team of grown men who played for each other and for the pride of their country.
What makes Of Miracles and Men such an important piece of work is that it’s an American-made documentary that doesn’t take an American-centric point of view. Outside of the narrator being American actor Jeff Daniels, all of the interviews are done with the Soviet players, journalists, and Tarasov’s daughter.
The documentary gets Al Michael’s Miracle line out of the way in the first scene to set up the call by the Soviet broadcaster later in the doc. It’s amazing juxtaposition.
The cameras follow Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter to the site of the 1980 Olympic games. Players from the team recount the major events from the game including the removal of the world’s best goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for a crucial mistake he made at the end of the first period.
The players are especially honest and authentic in their candor. Soviet team Captain Boris Mikhailov and Tretiak provide memorable quotes and lines as they recall the game and the psychology of the team throughout. The Soviets never expected to lose. By all accounts, there was no way they should’ve lost. They were the better team with NHL quality talent playing against the best of the American collegiate ranks. It’s what makes the 1980 Miracle such an iconic and inspirational sporting moment.
As the famous 1980 match between the US and Soviets is wrapped up, Of Miracles and Men still has its most important story to tell. A story about freedom.
Soviet hockey players were signed to a 25-year contract with the Soviet military. There was no way out of that contract.
The NHL had been circling around Soviet hockey players in hopes that the Soviet government would eventually allow Soviet hockey players to play in the NHL.
The first Soviet acquisition in the NHL would be Slava Fetisov, but not without a lot of conflict between Fetisov, Tikhonov, and the Soviet government who wanted to hold onto Fetisov. Fetisov was determined not to flee his country and breach his contract. Rather he wanted to work out a deal where the military contract would be nullified by the Soviet government. Fetisov’s intention was that if he did his business the proper and legal way, it would open the door for more Soviet players to follow in his footsteps.
Slava Fetisov became the first Soviet citizen to ever be released from the army and leave the country to work as a free man.
Of Miracles and Men captures the heart of what makes sport such a powerful institution in our world. The players of the Soviet National Team were no less human or proud men than the young men of the US Team. The Soviet players carried the burden of expectation that their government would use their success to promote the Soviet Union. Nothing short of gold and championships were acceptable.
Sure, the Miracle game is at the foundation of American pride. But ‘Of Miracles and Men’ desires to ask us to set aside that nationalism to understand that maybe there’s more to sport than ‘us versus them’. There is more to sport than just a winner and a loser.
There was more to the Miracle on Ice than a Miracle.