REVIEW: Biggest Miracle of All — the Actual Whales — Overlooked in Big Miracle
There’s a big old mammal heart beating softly but steadily at the center of Big Miracle, which recounts the true story of how, in 1988, humans from all over the world raced to save three California gray whales trapped by rapidly forming Arctic Circle ice. The whales’ plight made great television footage, captivating viewers everywhere; it also galvanized plenty of people who wanted to use their alleged or sort-of genuine concern for these poor creatures as a political tool or a means to financial gain. With whale-sized good intentions, Big Miracle works hard to capture the drama of the situation and also sweep an adequate quota of feel-good vibes into its wide-ranging net.
But there’s so much going on in Big Miracle that the biggest miracle of all – the whales at the center of the story, magnificent, crusty beasts dotted with barnacle appliques, as if the sea gods had gone nuts with their own version of the Bedazzler – get lost amid all the criss-crossing love stories, political wheeler-dealing and well-intentioned but inadequate rescue missions. Maybe that suits the whales just fine – they are unassuming-looking creatures, after all – but they still deserve a little more majesty than the movie gives them.
John Krasinksi plays Adam Carlson, a TV news reporter doing a series of stories set in sleepy Barrow, Alaska. It’s at least a small stroke of inspiration to cast Krasinski as a TV newsguy: He’s got the rubbery-handsome face of a cartoon-character -- like a human Scooby Doo -- and like so many of those TV guys, he manages to look both enthusiastic and nonplussed at the same time. Just when he thinks he’s exhausted the number of stories to be found in Barrow – his missives include a report on the world’s northernmost Mexican restaurant – he finds himself out on the ice one day and, gazing into the distance, spots first one gray nub, then another, emerging from a hole in the surface. These are the three whales, unable to continue the route they’ve been swimming because the Arctic ice has formed faster than expected; being mammals, they have to poke their snouts above the water’s surface in order to breathe. Adam jumps on the story, which is then picked up by the major TV networks. It also attracts the attention of Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore, done up to look mousy, though not even the drab, no-makeup look can tamp down her natural radiance), who also happens to be Adam’s ex-girlfriend. Rachel both exasperates Adam and inspires protectiveness, and her arrival on the scene rattles him, not least because she distracts him from his longtime ambition: He dreams of getting out of sleepy Alaska and going to work for a “real” TV station in the lower 48.
But there’s not much time for any chemistry to develop – or redevelop – between Adam and Rachel. Before long, a host of individuals, each toting his or her own kit bag of self-interest, descend upon the frigid little berg of Barrow: There’s frosty Los Angeles TV-news reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), who temporarily puts stars in Adam’s eyes; oil tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who’s interested in raping the land but who also harbors at least a semi-genuine desire to help; Reagan henchwoman Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw), who’s dispatched to the North to make the president look adequately concerned about this big-news issue and thus secure the upcoming election for George Bush; and Colonel Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), the guy in charge of moving an ice-breaking hovercraft into the area in a valiant attempt to cut an escape path for our nobbly-headed gray friends.
The framing story involves a young Inupiat boy named Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) who’s more obsessed with his Walkman than he is with whale sounds (though you can bet that changes). Also, at various times in the movie, assorted Inupiat characters pop up to espouse whale-oriented wisdom. Admittedly, director Ken Kwapis (director of the 2005 Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, as well as episodes of The Office and The Bernie Mac Show) had his work cut out for him in trying to organize all these interlacing stories. (The screenplay is by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, adapted from Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.) And there are a few moments of grace here and there, including a sequence in which Rachel dons a wetsuit and dips into the water – brrr! – to swim with these magnificent prisoners of the ice. The resulting encounter is less underwater ballet than woman-to-whale mind-meld; as Rachel shimmies around these prehistoric-looking beasts, she seems to understand them less and respect them more, and we do, too.
Kwapis wants, of course, to keep the tone light, and so he does. It’s fun to see James LeGros show up as a toque-clad Minnesota guy, one of the inventors of a device that helps get the whales swimming on their way. (It’s named, rather delightfully, the Hootkin De-Icer.) And at the end, look for a Sarah Palin cameo, thanks to the wonders of vintage video footage. Big Miracle is harmless and big-hearted, and it’s also handsomely shot (by the reliable John Bailey). But it could use a lot more bite. The battle for the whales, who become PR pawns in the process of just trying to survive, isn’t sharply delineated: Everyone wants a piece of these poor guys for their own gain, but the movie underplays that angle –by the windup, everybody forgets their differences and winds up in a group hug. And the victory for the whales, in the end, is bittersweet. Their story has more pathos and depth and nuance than that of the humans – there’s no way to give them dialogue, but they could have had more of a voice.