Release Date: February 3, 2012
Director: Ken Kwapis
Writers: Jack Amiel & Michael Begler (screenplay), Thomas Rose (book Freeing the Whales)
Stars: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski and John Pingayak
MPAA Rating: PG
On the surface, Big Miracle appears to simply be a feel good film about saving a family of gray whales trapped underneath the ice in Alaska. But it’s actually about something deeper and far more fascinating. It’s a film about why we care about these types of stories and how they have the ability to unite the entire country (and the world at large).
The film is based on the book Freeing the Whales, which tells the story of the 1988 “Operation Breakthrough” mission to free three whales caught underneath the ice in Point Barrow, Alaska. Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is an Alaskan reporter in Point Barrow doing local color stories. He films a piece on the whales, which runs on the local NBC news.
The story ends up going national when NBC needs a minute and a half of filler at the end of Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News. (The producers decide to go with it because Brokaw loves animal stories.) It captures the nation’s attention, which sends a swarm of national media to Point Barrow to cover the story. Since the town only has one restaurant of note and one hotel, the locals begin price gouging the out-of-towners because of the limited resources.
With the media getting the entire country invested in the story, an eclectic group of people with different agendas all have to band together to save the whales. There’s Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), the militant Greenpeace spokeswoman who is trying to save the world. She is forced to work alongside J.W. McGraw, the oil tycoon in possession of equipment that everyone believes is the best chance to break up the ice, who is clearly only helping out for PR reasons. Then there’s the native Alaskans, who are also at odds with Rachel because they hunt the whales for food, which she is morally opposed to. But the locals clearly still care deeply about these animals. President Ronald Reagan’s administration also gets involved in a calculated PR move, hoping to help Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Presidential election campaign. Reagan’s administration must also decide whether or not to enlist the help of the Russians, who have a ship in the area that could be of assistance. They must decide if they can stomach the idea of the Russians coming to the rescue.
Being a PG-rated family film, the movie is careful to never paint anyone as too much of a villain. While McGraw primarily cares about his own self-interests, he does get invested in the rescue effort and comes to genuinely care about the whales. There is also a scene where he and Kramer come to a mutual understanding, realizing that it’s much harder to hate one another now that they’ve gotten to know each other. The Russians as well are shown to care very much about the whales, even if they are still in the midst of the Cold War with the Americans leading the rescue effort. The only people who come out looking bad are the reporters who, with the exception of Carlson, all seem concerned primarily with scooping their colleagues and making a name for themselves.
The film does a good job balancing footage of its actors with news footage from 1988. You see the real footage of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather delivering their newscasts. You also see real footage of Reagan giving a press conference. (Unfortunately, the film also chose to get a Reagan impersonator for one scene, which was incredibly distracting and unnecessary.) During the credits, there is a montage that shows you some of the actual people the actors were portraying. Early in the film, there is a scene where Rachel Kramer has a megaphone and is dragged out of the meeting where McGraw is awarded exclusive rights to drill for oil in Alaska. Originally, I figured this was Hollywood looking for a flashy way to introduce her character, but at the end of the film you see the footage of the real Kramer doing the exact same thing. That was a nice touch.
The performances are all solid. John Krasinski is an effective leading man and he injects some great comedic moments into the film, including a hysterically funny scene inside a helicopter. Ten Danson gives a really fun, hammy performance as McGraw, making him a blustering ass, but still somehow likable. Kathy Baker is really charming as well in her role as Ruth McGraw, J.W.’s wife who manipulates her husband into helping out without him even realizing what she’s doing.
Big Miracle is a fun, lighthearted film, but it’s also a fascinating look into our society. It examines the way TV news work and what we as a nation get invested in. There are also moments when people question how much effort and resources as worth putting into saving these animals and if human lives should be put at risk to save three whales. (Being a light family movie, it never delves too deep into any of these ideas, but the fact that it touches on them at all was refreshing.) If none of that interests you, it’s also a fun, funny film about saving three whales. Big Miracle has broad appeal and is a surprisingly charming little film. I recommend giving it a shot.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.