Film Review: Big Miracle

Fictional treatment of the 1988 effort to rescue three whales trapped under Alaskan ice features a wide-ranging cast of characters and offers solid family entertainment.

Young moviegoers may come to see Big Miracle for the whales, but they’ll also learn what a media phenomenon looked like in the days before the Internet, smart-phones, Facebook and Twitter. Inspired by real events, this ensemble tale dramatizes the 1988 campaign to rescue three gray whales trapped under an expanse of ice in Barrow, Alaska—an effort that united an intriguing coalition of sometimes diametrically opposed interests. The diverse points of view represented in the story, plus the not-so-distant look back at an era when three network anchors set the news agenda, make this a family film adults will enjoy as much as their animal-loving kids.

The narrative is set in motion when Alaska TV news reporter Adam Carlson (a fictional character played by John Krasinski) spies the desperate whales while on assignment in Barrow. Much to his surprise, his impromptu coverage catches the eye of “NBC Nightly News” producers, and soon the plight of the whales snowballs into a national story. Among the first on the scene is outspoken Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore, in a role based on environmentalist Cindy Lowry), who also happens to be Adam’s ex-girlfriend. An unlikely ally is oil tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who, thanks to some artful coaxing by his wife, volunteers to transport an ice-breaking hoverbarge by helicopter to Barrow as a public-relations move that he hopes will help him land a wildlife-refuge drilling contract. Aside from the mammoth challenge of clearing a five-mile path for the whales, the biggest potential obstacle is the native Iñupiat tribal community, who for centuries have hunted the whales for sustenance and favor another, quicker, colder solution to the crisis—until they, too, recognize the PR implications.

Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s adaptation of the book Freeing the Whales by on-the-scene journalist Thomas Rose deftly coordinates a large cast of characters, which includes an ambitious, pretty, blonde L.A. reporter (Kristen Bell) ill-prepared for the Alaska climate; the no-nonsense National Guard commander (Dermot Mulroney) assigned to tow the Hoverbarge; the Reagan cabinet executive (Vinessa Shaw) who coordinates the White House response (and in real life fell in love with and married the National Guardsman); and two eager Minnesota inventors (Rob Riggle and James LeGros) with a primitive ice-melting device, also based on a real duo. Somehow, the script makes room for all that plus a romantic triangle, a Russian-American détente, and a respectful portrait of Iñupiat culture, as represented by a wise elder and his decidedly more modern grandson (native Alaskans John Pingayak and Ahmaogak Sweeney). All perspectives get an airing, and even Greenpeace and Big Oil shake hands and show some momentary mutual gratitude.

Ken Kwapis, who directed Barrymore in He’s Just Not That Into You and Krasinski in “The Office,” encourages Barrymore to be strident and abrasive; with her constant haranguing about endangered creatures and conservation, Rachel isn’t easy to like, but Barrymore ultimately makes us appreciate her passion and sincerity. Krasinski’s natural, soft-spoken likeability and decency is a stark contrast, and it’s fun to see committed environmentalist Danson going out of his way to avoid making confident oilman McGraw a stock villain.

Filmed entirely in Alaska (in warmer Anchorage, not forbidding Barrow), Big Miracle replicates a big news story with ample production value. The ice field where the main action takes place looks persuasively frigid, and the animatronic whales (created by the same New Zealand shop that worked on Whale Rider) are convincingly detailed. And for those who doubt the wilder aspects of the tale, there’s ample archival footage of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings as they first reported it, and end-credit clips of the real-life counterparts of several characters. With its sprawling but never unwieldy account of warring interests working together, Big Miracle is as generous to its characters as the mission it depicts.