The Winter Olympics in Film

It’s that magical time that only comes once every four years – the Winter Olympics! I’ve been a fan of the Winter Olympics since I was a kid. I was captivated – along with millions of others – by Dorothy Hamill, the darling of the 1976 Innsbruck games. Figure skating is my personal favorite event, but I also love snowboarding, ski jumping, Alpine skiing and ice hockey. I don’t participate in any of these activities, which require so much more grace than I possess. I can’t even stand up on ice skates and the one time I went downhill skiing, I didn’t even make it off the bunny hill (the chair lift scared the shit out of me anyway).

In addition to being a fan of the Winter Olympics, I am also a fan of movies about the Winter Olympics (this is a pop culture blog, after all). Here are some suggestions:

  • Miracle

“Do you believe in miracles? YES!” – Al Michaels

If you are old enough to remember the event on which 2004’s Miracle is based, hearing that play call probably sends shivers down your spine. For the rest of you, a quick history lesson to give the story context: in February of 1980, the US really, really needed a win. The Cold War was at its peak, the economy was in the tank, gas was being rationed and fifty-two American citizens were being held hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran. Our nation wasn’t exactly pinning its hopes on the men’s Olympic hockey team (women’s ice hockey wasn’t included at the Olympics until the 1998 games in Nagano), which was comprised primarily of college kids whose average age was twenty-one. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, used “athletes for hire”, paid for by corporations, to maintain their team’s amateur status. The Soviet men’s hockey team was older and far more experienced. They had won four consecutive gold medals dating back to the 1964 games in Innsbruck. They hadn’t lost an Olympic game since 1968. They would make mincemeat out of our boys, wouldn’t they?

The Soviets didn’t make mincemeat out of our boys. In fact, we eliminated the Soviets and left them to duke it out with Sweden for the silver medal. Led by coach Herb Brooks, our scrappy little team implausibly pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in sports history. It was a big, big win, which obviously makes this story perfect for a Disney movie, right down to the guaranteed happy ending. But Miracle has some grit to it, too. To give the hockey scenes authenticity, director Gavin O’Connor auditioned ice hockey players for the majority of the roles, figuring it would be easier to teach hockey players to act than it would be to teach actors to play hockey. The best-known member of the team, goaltender Jim Craig, is played by the adorable Eddie Cahill; then best known as Friends‘ Tag Jones, Cahill also plays hockey, and Craig was his boyhood idol. Patricia Clarkson is delightful as always as Brooks’s wife Patti. But Miracle belongs to Kurt Russell as Coach Brooks. O’Connor knew he wanted Russell from the get-go, and Russell gives a terrific performance. The real Brooks served as a technical advisor for the film but sadly died in a car accident before it was completed. An epitaph at the end of Miracle states: “This film is dedicated to the memory of Herb Brooks, who died shortly following principal photography. He never saw it. He lived it.”

Miracle is available to stream on Disney+.

  • The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge is not necessarily a good movie but I love it anyway. File this one under “guiltless pleasures”. Released in 1992, The Cutting Edge is ostensibly about a figure skating team preparing for the 1992 Winter Olympics (which were held in Albertville about six weeks before the film’s release). But the skating is just a vehicle to get the two absurdly attractive leads (D.B. Sweeney’s working-class hockey player turned figure skater Doug Dorsey and Moira Kelly’s spoiled ice princess Kate Moseley) from bickering teammates to lovers. The skating sequences are fun, albeit often unrealistic. For one thing, spotlights are never used in competition, only in exhibition performances. For another, the Pamchenko twist would absolutely, positively be illegal. The screenplay, while clichéd, zips along at a nice pace (The Cutting Edge was screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s first produced script; Gilroy would go on to write several highly acclaimed films, including the Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton, for which he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). Since both the gold medal win AND the declarations of love are a foregone conclusion, The Cutting Edge hinges on the chemistry between Sweeney and Kelly. Fortunately, they’re adorable together, even when they’re bickering.

In one of The Cutting Edge‘s funniest scenes, Doug learns a key difference between ice hockey skates and figure skates…TOE PICKS!

You can watch The Cutting Edge on Showtime.

  • I, Tonya

Unlike The Cutting Edge, whose characters are fictional figure skaters, I, Tonya is (very loosely) based on the story of US figure skater Tonya Harding and her dedication to winning an Olympic gold medal at any cost. In case you don’t know the whole story, I’ll give you a rundown. On January 6, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped with a baton as she left a practice session at Cobo Arena. The injury forced Kerrigan to withdraw from the US Figure Skating Championships taking place in Detroit that weekend. Kerrigan recovered in time to take part in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, where she ultimately won the bronze medal – and Harding placed a distant, disappointing eighth. Kerrigan’s attacker was later revealed to have been hired by Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly. A disgraced Harding, who has always maintained her innocence in the attack, was banned from competitive skating for life.

I, Tonya is a darkly comic take on the events, using both the unreliable narrator technique and a mockumentary style to juxtapose the conflicting statements of Gillooly and Harding. How much Harding knew before – and after – the attack has always been up for debate; I, Tonya reframes the narrative to make it more sympathetic to Harding. The skating sequences are dazzling; Tatiana S. Riegel received a well-earned Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing. The supporting cast, which includes Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s coach, is terrific, as is Margot Robbie, whose compassionate portrayal of Harding earned her all sorts of award nominations. But the star of the show is Allison Janney as Harding’s abusive, foul-mouthed mother LaVona. Janney chews all the scenery on her way to sweeping awards season: she won the Oscar, the BAFTA, the SAG and the Golden Globe. Janney’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

I, Tonya is available to stream on Hulu.

  • Cool Runnings

Cool Runnings is another “inspired by a true story” flick, this one based on the Jamaican bobsleigh team that made their debut at the 1988 Calgary games. John Candy, in his final film role released before his death in 1994, plays Irving Blitzer, a disgraced former bobsleigh competitor who was disqualified from the 1972 games for cheating. Blitzer winds up coaching a tenacious team of Jamaican runners who are determined to compete at Calgary. Cool Runnings was originally conceived as a drama, but with the addition of Candy and director Jon Turteltaub, it just made more sense as a comedy. The movie isn’t terribly accurate; from the details of the crash that derailed the team’s Olympic dreams to the story behind Blitzer’s real-life counterpart George Fitch to the sometimes cringe-worthy Jamaican accents, Cool Runnings is more fiction than truth. Even the weather is misrepresented; instead of the cold and blustery conditions shown in the movie, it was sunny and mild in Calgary that February, with temperatures reaching as high as 61 degrees Fahrenheit. But Cool Runnings is still entertaining as hell, and when the team picks up their sleigh and carries it across the finish line, you’ll be cheering and clapping along with the crowd.

“Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme!”

You can watch Cool Runnings on Disney+.

  • Eddie the Eagle

For Eddie the Eagle, we return to the Calgary games for the story of Michael David Edwards, who in 1988 became Great Britain’s first ski jumper to compete in the Olympics since 1928. Eddie, as Michael’s friends called him, qualified for the Olympics by participating in the 1987 World Championships in Bavaria, West Germany, where he placed 55th. At the Olympics, Eddie competed in the 70- and 90-meter events. While he finished both events in last place, he set a British record AND won the hearts of the spectators and the press, who affectionately dubbed the near-sighted Eddie “Mr. Magoo”. You’ll also fall in love with movie Eddie, who is endearingly played by Taron Egerton. Eddie the Eagle is schmaltzy and sentimental, but damn entertaining nonetheless. And after the last two years, don’t we all deserve a little schmaltz?

Eddie the Eagle is not available on any streaming subscriptions, but you can rent it on Amazon Prime.

You can stream coverage of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games (Beijing 2022) on Peacock.

2 thoughts on “The Winter Olympics in Film

  1. We recently watched Miracle, and I fell in love all over again…with the movie as a whole, but especially with Kurt Russell. Perfect pre-Olympic choice!

    Liked by 1 person

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