Big Miracle


John Krasinski as Adam Carlson
Drew Barrymore as Rachel Kramer
Ted Danson as J. W. McGraw
Vinessa Shaw as Kelly Meyers
Tim Blake Nelson as Pat Lafaytette
Stephen Root as Governor Haskell
Kristen Bell as Jill Jerard
Dermot Mulroney as Colonel Scott Boyer

Directed by Ken Kwapis

“Big Miracle” is a surprisingly evenhanded film showing people with radically different motivations coming together to do something amazing. It also engages both adults and children in a way that makes it a great family film.

“Big Miracle” is based on a true story.

In 1988, Adam Carlson is a small town news reporter in Alaska. While working in Barrow, he stumbles across an unusual sight – three grey whales trapped by the rapidly forming Arctic ice. Unable to make it to the open ocean, the male, female, and baby whales can only breathe through a hole in the ice that could freeze over at any time. Sensing a big story, Carlson films the whales and sends it to a station in Anchorage.

Soon enough, the story captures global attention and everyone descends on the small Alaskan town for the story. The media, Greenpeace, an Alaskan oil company, the National Guard, the Inuit, and more all see the whales’ plight as a way to get good PR. But as they struggle against the elements to save the whales, they all quickly find deeper reasons for helping them.

“Big Miracle” is rated PG for language.

What Worked:
As “Big Miracle” started, I wasn’t quite sure how the movie was going to handle the material. The film opened and we were treated to a scene of some Inuit in a boat following a whale in the ocean. I thought, “Oh, boy. They’re going to depict the noble Native American in tune with nature.” But anyone familiar with the Inuit knows that they do traditional hunting of whales for food, too. So I expected “Big Miracle” to gloss over that fact. But then at the end of the scene, the older Inuit picks up a spear and hurls it at the whale they are following, then the screen goes black. I was a bit surprised because the last thing I expected them to do was portray the Inuit accurately.

The movie then continued. Later on we see a scene where Ted Danson is the oil executive and Drew Barrymore is the Greenpeace activist. Danson rails against the nutty tree hugger while Barrymore disrupts a meeting with a bullhorn ranting about the evil oil company destroying the environment. So then I thought, “OK, this is the route they’re going to take – the stereotypical evil oil company and the stereotypical noble environmentalist.” But again, as the movie progressed, I was proven wrong. Ted Danson’s character is shown as a real human being who, despite wanting to drill for oil in the Arctic, actually comes to care about the whales to the point where he’s willing to invest millions of his own dollars to help save them. And Drew Barrymore’s character, while still undeniably portrayed as the hero of the film, is shown as someone a little out of touch with how the public perceives her passion for the environment and someone who needs to adapt her tactics to achieve her goals.

In the end, the thing I liked best about “Big Miracle” was its evenhandedness in its portrayal of all the involved parties. I’m so used to movies skewing films to Hollywood political agendas that I was frankly shocked. The people in this movie feel more real because they are shown warts and all. These characters are all flawed in one way or another, but they ultimately all bring their unique capabilities together to help achieve a common goal. And while saving the whales is a fantastic message for kids, I think the greater message that “Big Miracle” delivers is that it is possible for people with radically different agendas to work together and do amazing things. That’s an important message to hear as we enter yet another divisive election year.

I was 15 when the real events portrayed in this movie took place, so I knew exactly how it was going to play out. But I have to give credit to the cast and crew – they made this film exciting for anyone that wasn’t familiar with the true story. A 20-something year old woman sitting near me was on the edge of her seat through the whole film and cheered and clapped and cried as it unfolded. It really engaged her. I also took my two young sons to see “Big Miracle” and after it was over, they kept asking me, “Why did they (the filmmakers) do this or that?” I had to keep telling him, “Because that’s how it happened in real life. They didn’t make that up.” This film also gave me an opportunity to talk to my kids about teamwork, life and death, and all the political issues involved with the Arctic. Most movies I take my kids to don’t generate that kind of discussion.

I was also impressed with the script for “Big Miracle” by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (based on the book by Thomas Rose). This movie has a lot of sub-plots going on and they manage to give all of them due attention. You have a love triangle between John Krasinski as Adam Carlson, Drew Barrymore as Rachel Kramer, and Kristen Bell as Jill Jerard. You also have a romance between Vinessa Shaw as Kelly Meyers and Dermot Mulroney as Colonel Scott Boyer. Then there’s discussion of the culture clash between the traditional Inuit and the Western pop culture overtaking the youth. Throw in the aforementioned Big Oil vs. Greenpeace issues, Cold War themes, media ethics, and….oh yeah, saving the whales. Overall they manage to juggle all of these balls in the air and not drop any of them.

The cast definitely helps sell this story. John Krasinski is funny and charming as Adam Carlson. He’s essentially the same as Jim Halpert, just in an Arctic setting. But this is exactly what is needed in order to add some humor to the story. A scene where Carlson has to help unfreeze a helicopter pilot’s eye in -70 degree weather is particularly funny when you throw in Krasinski’s style of humor. (The fact that director Ken Kwapis also directed 12 episodes of “The Office” shows he knows both comedy and how to direct Krasinski.) Drew Barrymore fits the radical environmental activist role well as Rachel Kramer. She’s not afraid to be shown without makeup, hair messed up, and dressing badly. But it perfectly fits a character who is more concerned about whales than herself. Kristen Bell also generates laughs as the Barbie news reporter Jill Jerard thrown into the middle of the Arctic for the world’s biggest story. She has an interesting inner struggle as she is torn between being taken seriously as a news reporter and retaining her moral compass. Throw in Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, and many others and you have an excellent cast.

I’ll add one last bit of praise – the fact that this is set in the ’80s allows the creators to have a little fun with nostalgia, but they never go overboard. We see Sony Walkmans, we hear references to Gordon Gecko, and music by Joan Jett. We also see vintage news broadcasts and even a surprise cameo by a young Alaskan sports reporter who we’re all familiar with. They’re fun little nods to any children of the ’80s watching this movie.

What Didn’t Work:
This film starts with the standard disclaimer “inspired by true events.” That means they fudged the facts to make a more interesting movie. While I don’t fault “Big Miracle” for playing with true events, it is kind of fun to go back and see what they changed. For example, the whales were named Bonnet, Crossbeak, and Bone instead of Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam. Then an Inuit hunter found the whales, not a kid and reporter. But there are some things that I’m not surprised they sanitized like the fact that the water was filled with blood from the cuts the whales sustained. And then the book this movie was based on was entitled “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.” Calling your movie a ‘non-event’ is a no-go, I suppose, compared to “Big Miracle.”

My only other nitpick is that the movie kept cutting away to young children watching the whales’ plight unfold on TV. I kept expecting them to have some role in the story by fundraising or pressuring politicians or something, but it didn’t happen. They seemed irrelevant to the plot. But again, it’s a nitpick.

The Bottom Line:
“Big Miracle” was ultimately entertaining for both kids and adults, so I recommend checking it out.