Big Miracle: A Slice of 80s Nostalgia, With a Side of Whale

This energetic family movie, about a pod of whales trapped in Alaskan ice, is less insipid than it looks.

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Universal Pictures

Drew Barrymore in Big Miracle

Big Miracle has the cheesy set up of a predictable rescue story, though an inter-species one. A pod of vulnerable whales suffer while conflicted humans bicker over whether or not — and how — to help before eventually riding to the rescue. But the movie has enough of a sense of irony to cut through some of that cheesiness. There may not be a second of say, Whale Rider‘s lyricism (that’s still the best whale movie out there), but this energetic family movie is less insipid than it looks.

Although Big Miracle’s edge had to have been cultivated by director Ken Kwapis (whose movies include the non-edgy He’s Just Not That Into You and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), some of it comes from a objective journalistic account. In October of 1988 reporter Tom Rose covered the sad case of three California grey whales that didn’t get out of the Arctic before winter and would have died in the ice near Barrow, Alaska were it not for a Herculean human effort. Rose then published Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, which looked at the political maneuvering between oil men, Greenpeace activists, Inuit natives, and the leaders of the U.S. and U.S.S.R., as reported by his fellow, greedy-for-air-time journalists. Rose’s original title may seem positively quaint, in our world full of Snookis and Kardashians, but what a piquant contrast it poses with a new paperback version of Rose’s book, revised, reissued and going by the movie’s faux-inspirational title.

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John Krasinski plays Adam Carlson, yet another portrayal of an incredibly nice guy who should be immediately taken home to mom. He’s the soul of amiability and I loved seeing him lick another man’s frozen eyelid open, but maybe Krasinski needs to hook up with someone like Drive‘s Nicolas Winding Refn to lively up his resume. A fledgling reporter from the Anchorage station, Adam is about to escape a season of banishment in Barrow when the whales turn up, poking their heads up through a tiny hole in the ever-thickening ice. They’ll never make it to the open ocean, five miles away and the somber (aren’t they always?) tribal elder Malik (John Pingayak) declares them likely goners. Adam cuts together a story. It plays in Anchorage, hits the feed and after a producer in New York notes that Brokaw is “a sucker for fish stories,” the trapped whales become national news. Kwapis incorporates old clips of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather into the story. They’ll be like aliens to your children, but what a trip to see them the media princes of the past, seeming so young, vital and essential.

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The whales themselves don’t get great screen time. They’re just barnacle-covered animatronic heads that nudge out of the water every few minutes to serve as window dressing to various human dramas, including sparks between Adam and his Greenpeace activist ex, Rachel (Drew Barrymore), and Adam and Jill (Kristen Bell), an aggressive TV reporter from Los Angeles whose hair is shellacked into a veritable jib. There are some annoying extraneous threads to the story, including repeat shots of a California family that gape at the TV coverage and seems strangely trapped in 1960s decor. Every predictable note gets struck. Of course sage tribe member Malik will drop to his knees and begin whale prayers. Of course the swarmy oil executive (Ted Danson) will commune with nature and develop a soft spot for the cute Greenpeace chick.

But there is a slyer side to Big Miracle, which positions itself as almost an equal opportunity mocker (though it has a liberal bent). Amidst all the touchy feely whale talk, it offers commentary on life in Alaska, the place where “a high school dropout can make $200,000 working on a rig” and natives collecting stipends from the government for oil rights can blithely charge reporters $20 for a piece of cardboard to put under their feet while doing standup interviews on the ice. Only Adam, Malik and the whales come up smelling like roses.

As for 80s hindsight, Reaganites beware. “I couldn’t hear you over the sound of the booming economy,” says Kelly (Vinessa Shaw), a Reagan aide sniping at Rachel, sweet Rachel of the adorable political fervor. They’re arguing, mostly over the idea of asking the Soviets, who have an icebreaker near by, for help. No one likes it, not even Rachel, who points out the Russians have a terrible track record where whaling is concerned. But it seems like the best option, and if Kelly blocks it, Rachel says “I’m going to tell them that Ronald Reagan killed those whales.” Match point.

There may be no role Barrymore is better suited to than that of sanctimonious environmentalist. Rachel is feather light, miles from the actress’ recent attempts at something more serious (Grey Gardens) but Barrymore flits merrily back and forth between the activist’s tendency to superiority and sincere good intentions. Stay for the outtakes, so you can get a peek at the woman she was playing, along with the people who were the basis for Krasinski and Shaw’s characters, as well as the stoic Natural Guardsman played by Dermot Mulroney (who also appears in The Grey; he’s having a chilly year). And whatever you do, even if the kids are demanding the bathroom, don’t leave before you get a chance to enjoy the Sarah Palin gag.

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