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Miracle Whip and Cuban Salsa

Last week was a busy one for the spin doctors of our national sport. First the CBC, playing the Janet Jackson/Nipplegate card, decided to muzzle “Hockey Night” loudmouth Don Cherry because of outrage over his francophobic comments on “Coach’s Corner”. (A seven-second tape delay and a federal investigation? It looks like Grapes’s days are numbered.) Then, on the eve of the annual All-Star classic, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA director Bob Goodenow butted heads over the impending lockout next season. Finally, the Hollywood treatment of Team USA’s “Miracle on Ice”, the surprise 1980 Olympic gold medal victory, was released on theatre screens across North America.

I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence about hockey movies. Being a player as well as a fan of the sport, I find them hard to resist—almost as if it’s my duty to see how the game is rendered on film. At the same time, the genre isn’t known for its brilliant moments. “Slapshot” may have seemed like good satire in 1976, but even as cult fare starring Paul Newman it would be a stretch to call this one a classic. (“Slapshot II”, a recent sequel with Stephen Baldwin and Gary Busey, was simply an embarrassment.) I stayed away from the “Mighty Ducks” movies: apart from being low-grade humour for the pre-teen set, they seemed a shameless marketing ploy for a Walt Disney-owned NHL franchise of the same name. “Youngblood”, from the mid-1980s, was strictly B-movie melodrama (though it had value as soft-core porn, especially when Rob Lowe is seduced by the older woman he’s boarding with), and CTV’s “The Sheldon Kennedy Story” was tabloid TV at its worst. The best film in the genre, to my mind, is Atom Egoyan’s “Gross Misconduct”, a 1993 CBC drama about the troubled life of Brian “Spinner” Spencer adapted from a book by Martin O’Malley. Despite some Toronto-centric inaccuracies, the film’s general atmosphere captured the hedonism and violence of life in the early-70s NHL–an extended "lost weekend" when the game struggled with expansion, lost talent to the WHA and got taken over by thuggery. There may have been more "personalities" in an era before multi-million-dollar contracts and public relations drained the average NHLer of all spontaneity, but "Gross Misconduct" reminded the viewer how marginally talented "role" players like Spencer could extend their careers by becoming goon entertainers. This theme dovetailed nicely with the Shakespearian tragedy of Spencer’s life off the ice.

Most hockey movies are wrapped in the same clichés. The protagonist, a talented, high-scoring cutiepie (always a forward, never a defenseman or goaltender), serves as a champion of “real” hockey: a survivor who endures endless abuse from opponents until he rises above the thuggery that wears down the game. His coach is either a kindly father figure with a dark past or an unwieldy testosterone case who mellows by the end. His off-ice love interest can’t understand his devotion to the game (and issues at least one hockey-or-me ultimatum that only serves to slow down the action), while his team is a sad-sack collection of beer-bellied failures who, by the end of the film, beat the odds and win the championship with seconds left on the clock. All this makes hockey movies a guilty pleasure on par with fast food lunches: the product is predictable and not very nourishing, but familiarity makes it fun to eat once in a while.

Last week, I had every intention of watching Gavin O’Connor’s “Miracle” and thought Kurt Russell would do a fine job in the lead role of US coach Herb Brooks. But I also had reservations beyond the usual ones. First, like any hockey fan born before 1965, I knew the story: Brooks, taking a roster of unproven college players, convinces them they’re good enough to defeat the world’s greatest hockey superpower. Then they go out and do it, stunning America and confounding the hockey establishment by beating the Soviets and winning Olympic gold on home ice in Lake Placid, New York. Like many Canadians, I found it mildly irritating that a movie had been made to glorify that particular event, rather than the 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, as hockey’s defining moment in the Cold War. This, and the fact “Miracle” was released so soon after we’d kicked US butt in the Americans’ most recent attempt at Olympic gold on home ice, just seemed, well, unsporting of them.

But then, why would an American film glorify Canadian prowess at anything, much less a game we’re supposed to dominate? In Hollywood, where sports movies are conflated into national psychodramas, no other country but the USA is worthy of the spotlight. And it would be naïve to suggest that “Miracle” is being released for any other reason than to whip up the masses with patriotic fervor as the country staggers through its post-9/11 malaise: the war on terrorism, a sluggish economy and the grim, Armageddonist presidency of George W. Bush. “Miracle Whip” is more like it. Sure enough, critics are saying the film’s transparent jingoism is its biggest flaw. “Miracle”, said Globe and Mail reviewer Rick Groen, reinforces “the unilateral politics of the post-9/11 era” by pitching the gold-medal win “as an epiphany to rank with Valley Forge, a rite of passage that galvanized the morale of an entire citizenry” still reeling from gas shortages and the Iran hostage crisis. Gulp. Did I really want to see this movie? As if all that Triumph-of-the-Will flagwaving wasn’t enough, I’d have to endure the trite psychology of coach Brooks, reduced to Tinseltown soundbites for Kurt Russell: “Great moments are born of great opportunity”; “We can beat them, boys”; and “You played your hearts out.”

In the end, I passed on “Miracle” in favour of former US Defense secretary Robert S. McNamara’s two-hour mea culpa in Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War”. McNamara’s admission that he and Curtis Lemay deserved to be called “war criminals” two decades before Vietnam (for contributing to the deaths of 100,000 Japanese in a single night’s firebombing of Tokyo), struck me as more honest filmmaking. But there was one more reason I couldn’t bring myself to watch “Miracle”. The same day this great wank for freedom opened in cinemas across the continent, the United States upheld a decision to deny visas to the five Cuban nominees in the Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album category at Sunday’s Grammy awards. According to a US diplomat in Havana, the musicians—including 77-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer and 75-year-old salsa pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba—were denied visas because their presence at the ceremonies were seen as “detrimental to the interest of the United States”.

Like many decisions by the Bush administration that defy common sense, this one was characterised by a creepy meanspiritedness. What threat, after all, could a bunch of musicians—including two septuagenarians who can hardly be described as Fidel apparatchiks—possibly pose to the United States? Could it be that Latin salsa and dirty dancing have been classified as weapons of mass destruction? Did the White House simply decide that the spread of Cuban music would corrupt good Baptist Americans by teaching them how to sway their hips? That Cuban son would foster a cycle of indolence in which all-night fiestas and rising tequila sales would lead to absenteeism at work and skyrocketing unemployment?

No. This was Bush’s middle finger to the Clinton White House for having been hip enough, in the late Nineties, not to deny visas to Ferrer and his band mates. This was Bush’s hooligan raspberry at their Carnegie Hall concert, which most recall as a poignant event that reunited a bunch of old men with long-lost friends from the Cuban exile community. Finally, it was Bush’s deliberate insult to a film, “The Buena Vista Social Club”, which in its own subtle way revealed the pigheaded ideology and moral bankruptcy of the Helms-Burton law. No siree, Bob, one can almost hear Dubya boasting, them Commie wetbacks ain’t gittin’ back in this cun’try agin. Ferrer, who ended up winning this year’s Grammy for “Buenos Hermanos”, probably isn’t dedicating his award to the U.S. president.

The coincidence of this story last week with the release of “Miracle” only highlights the movie’s fraudulent premise: America, a nation so fragile that it needs a long-forgotten sports story trumpeting its victory in the Cold War to lift its spirits, is led by a president who regards 77-year-old musicians as a threat to national security.

In the end, that’s the main reason I couldn’t stomach the thought of shelling out $11.50 to see “Miracle”. But then, like most pornography, I’ll probably end up watching it on television late one night, when no one else is around.

February 11, 2004 1,400 words.

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Daniel Gawthrop

Daniel Gawthrop

Daniel Gawthrop is a Vancouver writer, and the author of several books, the most recent of which is "The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican's Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity" (Arsenal Pulp, 2013).

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