When Team USA hits the ice against the Soviet Union in Miracle, a nation is counting on them to shake off a decade’s worth of ignominy. Director Gavin O’Connor has already set those stakes with an opening-credits montage: The invasion of Cambodia, the 1972 men’s basketball Olympic final against the Soviets, the fall of Saigon, Watergate, disco fever, the oil crisis, Three Mile Island, the death of Elvis, Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, and Billy Beer, the short-lived product of Carter’s “professional redneck” brother. At the time, even the NHL All-Stars were no match for the seasoned and surgical Soviets, much less a patched-together team of amateur skaters funneled mostly from colleges in Minnesota and Boston. The line on the U.S. team recalls Tim Tebow’s scouting report from the late, lamented Kissing Suzy Kolber blog: “Strengths: Intangibles. Weaknesses: Tangibles.”
But it actually happened. The same team that had been embarrassed by the Soviets 10-3 at Madison Square Garden in an exhibition mere days before the Olympics beat them 4-3 when it counted, thanks to a legendary Mike Eruzione goal and a 10-minute defensive scramble under relentless attack. No more crisis of confidence, Mr. President. Team Intangibles had done it. They had made up for a deficit of talent with an abundance of grit.
All of this underscores the main reason O’Connor’s three underdog sports movies—Miracle, the MMA melodrama Warrior, and his new basketball movie The Way Back—are so much better than almost any other films of their kind: He absolutely believes in this shit. In toughness. In discipline and will. He believes there’s nothing in the world that wind sprints cannot overcome. If he were a basketball coach, he’d be exactly the type of guy to follow a storied college career with a single-season flameout in the NBA. But thankfully he’s not—he’s a film director. And a good one.
Broadly speaking, O’Connor has made Hoosiers twice and Rocky once. Miracle is about a ragtag, overmatched team that thrives under a taskmaster of Midwestern stock. The Way Back is like Hoosiers if the Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper characters were rolled into one composite character, a sideline screamer with substance use issues. Warrior, meanwhile, may be about brothers at odds, but those brothers are rooted in the hard-hat Pennsylvania of Rocky Balboa, and the biggest obstacle in their rise through a winner-take-all MMA tournament is an undefeated Russian who pulverizes the field like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. These types of story beats are achingly familiar to moviegoers, who have seen many humble boot-strappers scrape and claw their way to a Big Game payoff. If you watched the trailer for The Way Back and felt like you’d already seen the whole movie, you’d be right.
But you’d also be wrong.
O’Connor may believe in miracles, but he doesn’t excuse himself from the hard work of making them persuasive. That starts with an appreciation for tough guys with tender souls, all excellent at masking turbulent emotions until they spill out onto the surface. In Miracle, the scene in the arena after Team USA defeats the mighty Soviets may be the stuff of Sports Illustrated covers, but coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) dashing back to the concourse alone and bursting into tears is the bigger moment. In Warrior, the climatic bout between the estranged Conlon brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), ends in a stranglehold that doubles as an embrace, the only acceptable way these beasts can express love for each other. And in The Way Back, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) gets carried home from the bar every night because he’d rather numb a private pain than confront it.
“The legs feed the wolf, gentlemen,” Brooks barks at his players as he puts them through the merciless conditioning drills that will give them the stamina to outlast their opponents in the third period. Here again, O’Connor practices what his characters preach: He loves a good montage, as he should, but he otherwise doesn’t allow himself any narrative shortcuts to get where he needs to go. Tommy and Brendan don’t even cross paths in Warrior until more than an hour into the film, after O’Connor has drawn their past and present in full: Tommy the war hero/deserter who’s hiding out after a troubled tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq; Brendan the suburban science teacher who tries to fight his way out of debt in parking-lot brawls outside a strip club. Both are angry at their father Paddy (a never-better Nick Nolte), who tore the family apart with his alcoholism and domestic violence, and is now clean and sober, but too late for redemption.
O’Connor lets these scenes play out at unusual length. That first scene between Tommy and his father in Warrior is as brutal a beatdown as any he delivers on his way through the Sparta tournament in Atlantic City. Looking around at his father’s empty house, Tommy says, “Must be hard to find a girl who can take a punch nowadays.” Paddy absorbs the blow, accepting that he had it coming. In The Way Back, when Jack’s wife (Janina Gavankar) tells him over lunch that she’s seeing another man after a year’s separation, that piece of information is allowed to linger in the air. Jack absorbs the blows just like Paddy, knowing that he’s responsible for his own pain, but his wife still shares a little of the burden, too. Coaching a middling basketball team at the Catholic high school where he’d once found glory may cauterize the wound at the center of his life, but it won’t heal him.
The emotional stakes are high in O’Connor’s sports movies, and the slow grind of establishing them are the legs that feed the wolf. There’s not as much excitement in Brooks and his team winning in Lake Placid without first noting the toll all the work takes on their minds and bodies in the lead-up to the Games. Brendan stands to lose his home, his job, and his entire way of life if he doesn’t win Sparta, but he doesn’t have his brother’s brute strength, so every step forward feels like part of a long war of attrition. Jack’s new job leading his alma mater back to hardwood glory gives him a sense of purpose that’s been missing in his life, but it’s not clear what victory will mean for him. Affleck had acted for O’Connor before in his enjoyably dopey thriller The Accountant, but this is a different kind of performance, drawing on stakes he knows all too well. Onscreen and off, The Way Back feels like a 12-step program that may or may not take this time.
Of course, none of this hard work would pay off if O’Connor botched the action sequences. He cares more about X’s and O’s than the typical inspirational sports movie director, so there’s plenty of talk about the innovative schemes that will surprise the Soviets in Miracle or the motion offense that frees up open shots in The Way Back. But O’Connor is distinguished most by taking the bruising aesthetic of his dramatic scenes into the arena, rarely settling for the types of shots that are seen on a television broadcast. He treats the rinks in Miracle and the rings of Warrior with the same close-up, ground-level, inside-the-lines intensity of men in action, and he isolates the sound of skates slashing through the ice or the “huh-huh” exhales of fighters giving effort. Yet he’s capable of varying his style during pivotal moments: After Eruzione’s go-ahead goal, O’Connor registers the terror of these young underdogs having to survive the last 10 minutes like Steven Spielberg treats the soldiers on the boats in the minutes before the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan. During attempted tap-outs in Warrior, he’ll bring the camera so tight that it’s just tired bodies locked in resistance.
O’Connor isn’t defiant of the Big Game formula like, say, the great Ron Shelton, who made a career out of upending sports movie clichés in films like Bull Durham, which ducks out midseason, or White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup, which are about how wins are hidden losses and losses are hidden wins. When Herb Brooks gives his pregame monologue (“Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world”), O’Connor wants to send chills down your spine; no one who doesn’t believe in the transcendent nature of sports would make a film about the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team. The difference is that there’s not a whiff of the cynicism or laziness that mars other films of this kind, which are eager to get to those moments without putting in the work. With the three sports movies he’s made to date, O’Connor has had the third-period stamina to bring them home.
Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.