Better and more acerbic than its title would suggest, Big Miracle is not just another cetacean liberation movie, in the mould of Dolphin Tale and the trio of Free Willy movies.
In fact, it’s a screwball comedy, with a possible debt to Preston Sturges’s 1942 film, The Miracle of Morgan Creek, a movie inspired by the Dionne quintuplets, and similarly set in a small town turned upside down by media and political showboating.
In 1988, NBC showed footage on its newscast of three California grey whales trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, and a media frenzy erupted, eventually bringing together Greenpeace, the National Guard, a big oil company, local whale hunters and the U.S. and Soviet governments in a rescue effort.
Adapted by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler from Thomas Rose’s account of the incident ( Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non Event), the movie is introduced in voice-over by worldly 11-year-old Inuit boy Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney).
He has recently befriended a visiting TV reporter, Adam (John Krasinski of TV’s The Office), who’s finishing a week’s worth of stories on life in a northern village, where oil drilling may soon replace hunting if a local oil-company CEO (Ted Danson) has his way. Opposing the drilling is environmental activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), Adam’s former girlfriend.
When Nathan convinces Adam to shoot one last story, Adam looks through his video camera viewfinder and suddenly notices the whales, two adults and a juvenile, trapped in a patch of open water the size of a small backyard swimming pool. His story ends up on the evening news and, to use a term not yet discovered, goes viral.
(In a nice touch, the film uses original news footage of the events from the then three major American networks – with Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings.) A swarm of journalists floods into town, paying inflated costs for food and hotels, standing about on the ice, hoping for the whales’ escape so they can leave town as well.
The local whale hunters consider harvesting the whales but take the PR-conscious role of rescuers instead. Everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.. After Rachel pushes the governor (Stephen Root) to get the National Guard to help, the oil-company executive (Danson) steps in with a plan to have helicopters tow a barge to the site to break the ice. When that fails, President Reagan calls on his new friend Mikhail Gorbachev to bring in a nearby Soviet icebreaker.
With the broadly silly satire as a backdrop, the film focuses on a romantic triangle, as Adam is drawn both to Rachel, the single-minded activist, and Jill (Kristen Bell), a sexy Los Angeles reporter who is here to make her name with this glorified “cat in a tree” story.
Krasinski, who manages to seem both self-effacing and persistent, Barrymore, as a passionate carer, and Bell, as a Barbie-with-brains, make an appealing threesome. Their repartee is more reminiscent of director Ken Kwapis’s work on television shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation than his weak movie comedies ( Licensed to Wed, He’s Just Not That Into You).
Big Miracle is not one of those whale tales that leaves the audience blubbering, but it’s open to the allure of the imposing creatures, which resemble long boulders that have come to life. The whales are represented here with a combination of animatronics, CGI, wild footage and, best of all, the footage from the original rescue operation.
- Directed by Ken Kwapis
- Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
- Starring John Krasinksi, Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars