BIG MIRACLE – The Review
BIG MIRACLE is an outstanding new family film. It’s inspired by the true story of an Alaskan shore town where three whales got stuck in a pack of ice in 1988. The story begins with Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a reporter for an Anchorage TV station who’s spending time in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S. Adam has recently broken up with his Greenpeace activist girlfriend, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), so he spends much of his time watching satellite news feeds and befriending Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a young boy from the local Inupiat tribe. While filming a story about Nathan’s ice bike, Adam discovers a family of three gray whales (given the Flinstonian monikers Wilma, Fred, and Bam-Bam) that have become trapped in a small opening in the freezing ice that is preventing them from travelling five more miles to a waterway that they need to migrate and survive the winter. Adam submits his footage of their plight to his station and it soon goes viral (or as ‘viral’ as things could go in 1988 – which means lines of dialog like “Brokaw loves this sort of thing!”) Soon, the whole world is closely following the crisis, but the hole is getting smaller, the baby whale is injured, and things are looking grave for the big mammals. The village becomes a circus. Journalists compete for on-air time, campaign promises are made, deals are brokered, and local hotel and diner prices skyrocket. (The ‘carnival has come to town’ media circus that results reminded me of a Disneyfied version of Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE).
I had low expectations going into BIG MIRACLE. The trailer made it look like Drew Barrymore was the central human character and she indeed plays the Greenpeace warrior as the sort of slightly unhinged squeaky wheel that you can’t stand being around but have to admit gets things done. She’s introduced crashing a board meeting with her screeching bullhorn but as the movie takes shape, it’s clear that she’s just one of many, many characters that will be involved in this international drama. There’s the feeble Alaska Governor (Stephen Root), at first dismissive of the whale’s dilemma but quickly convinced to do the right thing. There’s the greedy oil company exec (Ted Danson) eager to exploit the region’s resources but who recognizes a public relations coup when he sees one. There are the Inupiat tribesmen who initially want to harvest the whales but have a change of heart. In D.C., there’s outgoing President Ronald Reagan’s aide (Vinessa Shaw) who’s quick to turn the crisis to the benefit of Vice President Bush’s upcoming election, and there’s even a glimpse or two of ol’ Ronnie himself (played sorta off-screen). There’s a pair of goofy Minnesotans (James LeGros and Rob Riggle ) with FARGO accents and an unlikely ice-melting invention, a hotshot National Guard pilot (Dermot Mulroney), a take-charge Soviet ship captain (Mark Ivinur), an on-site whale authority (Tim Blake Nelson), an ambitious but blonde female reporter (Kristen Bell) with a co-worker (John Michael Higgins) desperate to upstage her, and more. It’s a big, ambitious cast of characters and it’s very clever how they manage to squeeze in a cameo by a young Sarah Palin (and no, she’s not holding a harpoon!)
There’s a lot going on with all of these characters in BIG MIRACLE and what’s most impressive is how director (and St. Louis native) Ken Kwapis deftly navigates the logistics of this huge cast spread over different parts of the globe. If this movie had been made 40 years ago, Irwin Allen might have directed it. That Kwapis masterfully turns all the moving parts into a cohesive narrative with the excitement and momentum he generates is no small miracle itself and it doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a smart script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. The acting is strong across the board with a standout being Ted Danson’s drill-happy ‘J.W. McGraw’. There’s a terrific early scene where he listens to his wife’s (Kathy Baker) sneaky advice on turning the crisis into his own PR advantage while claiming the idea is his own. BIG MIRACLE has a formula that’s obvious but it doesn’t go exactly where you think it will. It’s sappy and manipulative at times but it is a movie about saving whales, so attacking it for being a tad cloying would be missing the point. The sentiment runs thick and deep but it’s an intrinsic part of what BIG MIRACLE is, so check it at the door, bucko!
“You’re not as easy to hate as I thought,” Barrymore’s Greenpeacenick tells Danson’s cowboy hat near the end of BIG MIRACLE and his answer: “Neither are you”. This is the type of mawkish exchange that, in a lesser film, would result in audible eye-rolling but, thanks to Kwapis, and a strong script, it’s a perfectly fitting moment and I dare even the most jaded cynic not to shed a tear of admiration for this BIG MIRACLE. I was surprised how enjoyable I found it and I give it a very strong recommendation.
4 1/2 of 5 Stars