Starring everyone who wasn’t in New Year’s Eve—and larded with just as many bromides—Big Miracle is inspired by the true story of the end-of-the-Cold War effort to free three gray whales trapped by ice in northern Alaska. While rooting for the marine mammals (and wishing for more footage of them—and even of their animatronic incarnations), your heart will also go out to the cast, stuck even more pitiably in syrupy manufactured crises.
In October 1988, Adam (John Krasinski), a TV reporter from Anchorage doing some stories in tiny Barrow, accidentally captures a whale spout on camera; he and his young Inupiat sidekick, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), and the boy’s grandfather Malik (John Pingayak), a tribal elder statesman, discover a trio of whales blocked from swimming south to Mexico by five miles of ice in the Beaufort Sea. Adam’s segment on the creatures’ plight is picked up by NBC Nightly News (“Brokaw loves these stories”). As the other major networks follow suit, rescuing the whales becomes an excellent PR opportunity for Greenpeace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore), big-oil executive J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), an Alaska National Guard colonel (Dermot Mulroney), a staffer for Ronald Reagan (Vinessa Shaw)—and for the glasnost-era Soviet Union.
Directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) from a screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Big Miracle, like all animals-in-peril movies, leans heavily on anthropomorphizing the underwater giants. “Everybody loves whales,” Adam says. (His observation was the original title of the film, which is based on Tom Rose’s 1989 book, Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.) If so, that affection mutates into narcissistic personality disorder in Kwapis’s movie as Rachel, Adam’s ex, cries to him: “Even though they’re big and powerful, they’re so much like us. We’re vulnerable, and we get scared, and we need help sometimes, too.”
Barrymore is frequently called upon to deliver sanctimonious rants followed by tears, and Krasinski to soothe her by reminding her of her limits. Adam’s caretaking is complicated by the arrival of Jill (Kristen Bell), an ambitious TV reporter from Los Angeles and the only character who articulates, in a sentence or two, the cynicism laid out in the title of Rose’s book. But Big Miracle isn’t a vehicle for barbed commentary on the news cycle (though two of the biggest front-page disasters that would later grip Alaska, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Sarah Palin, are referenced lightheartedly in the closing minutes). Almost as central to the movie as Barrymore’s sobs is its obsession with pre-iEverything gadgets: Cassettes and Walkmans are shot and referenced repeatedly, technological relics that vie with the whales for our tenderest feelings.