A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2012


2012, PG, 103 mins.


John Krasinski: Adam / Drew Barrymore: Rachel / Kristen Bell: Jill / Ted Danson: J.W. McGraw / John Pingayak: Malik


Directed by Ken Kwapis / Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Beggler, based on Tom Rose's book

On October 7, 1988 an Inuit hunter named Roy Ahmaogak discovered three gray whales that were trapped in a thick pack of ice in the Beaufort Sea near Point Barrow, Alaska.  The hunter made valiant attempts to use his chainsaw to cut through the dense ice in order to channel a path in the ice that would lead the trapped whales into the open waters and to safety.  

Word spread through the local community and unavoidably to the media: Reporter Tom Rose covered the sad and pathetic plight of the ice-trapped whales and later published a book on covering the efforts tp rescue them (FREEING THE WHALES: HOW THE MEDIA CREATED THE WORLD’S GREATEST NON-EVENT).  It highlighted the exceedingly unlikely alliance between parties as far ranging as Greenpeace activists, oil tycoons, the local Inuit, and, among other things, the leaders of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to secure the creatures’ freedom while many an unscrupulous and ratings-hungry reporter covered their collective efforts. 

I have vague memories of this story – ah, to hell with it, I don’t have any recollection of this news story at all - but I will concede that there is compelling material here for an inevitable Hollywoodization of this unbelievable, but very true story.  BIG MIRACLE – a remorselessly unoriginal title when compared to the aforementioned book – is a family film adaptation of the events involving the whales and the rescue efforts in the late 80’s, and the film’s heart is most definitely in the right place and certainly tells a worthy and involving story.  

It’s main dilemma, though, is that it’s so limply written, so drearily formulaic, so overly calculated, and so lacking in any semblance of cynicism with its underlining story that you almost begin to doubt its veracity.   BIG MIRACLE is a film of modest and warm-hearted charm, but it seems so annoyingly content with telling a cute story of marine wildlife activism that it essentially forgets to delve into some of the intrinsic controversies of the unilateral effort to save these stranded mammals.  As a tailored-made and mechanically derived audience pleaser, BIG MIRACLE has its pleasures, but for the rest of us more discerning filmgoers it barely registers above the lower echelon of an overly sentimental TV-movie-of-the-week. 

At least the film – directed by Ken Kwapis (HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) – keeps the reality-based 1980’s setting of the true story, albeit with many fictionalized trappings.  We are introduced to an Alaskan reporter, Adam Carlson (John Krasinski, who’s becoming alarmingly typecast playing awfully decent minded and nice guys with a heart of gold) who covers stories of mind-numbing triviality in Barrow.  Like many reporters trying to desperately make a name for themselves in small remote towns, Adam yearns for a big proverbial break that will take him to the national spotlight.  When three whales poke their heads through a tiny opening in the ice, Adam catches sight of it and immediately sees news potential.  He does a small story that eventually generates North American interest on the mainstream networks, so much so that a big city network reporter, Jill Jerard (Kristin Bell) is ordered by her bosses up to Alaska to further cover it. 



As Adam’s seemingly modest covering of the trapped whales begins to attract vast media attention and national interest, his ex-girlfriend and rabid Greenpeacer, Rachel Krammer (Drew Barrymore, plucky and cute, but almost sanctimoniously irritating as a ferociously single minded activist) also gets in on the action by coming up to Barrow and ensuring that everything possible is being done to ensure that the whales – affectionately named after Flintstone characters – are saved, especially from the local hunters, led by an elder named Malik (a wonderfully natural John Pingayak) who wants to hunt the whales, seeing as their local hunting economy is suffering and the whales seem like they'll apparently die.  As the whales’ plight deepens, a multitude of divergent parties decide to act in the best interests of the mammals and bind together to save them, which involves, at one point, a plan to use the military to helicopter-pull a massive barge through the ice to carve a clear path for the whales to the ocean.  When that does not work, two Cold Warring countries find themselves in a unique position: should they work against one another or together to liberate the whales?  

The one thing I did like about BIG MIRACLE is that it looks and feels like a genuine part of its time and place.  Trying to fake its icy-cold and frosty Alaska winterscapes with greenscreen work or substituting in warmer areas would have dampened the film’s overall immersion, but Kwapis thankfully shoots BIG MIRACLE in and around Anchorage to give the proceedings an immediate sense of believable geography.  Clearly, ample real-life footage, animatronics, and CGI were possibly all used to showcase the trapped whales, to be sure, but they seem integrated seamlessly in with the rest of the human co-stars.  

Yet, the film really gets detoured by far too many superfluous story threads that either hit too many perfunctory notes or seem haphazardly rendered.  The film has a trumped up love triangle between Krasinski, Bell, and Barrymore that stumbles through every methodical beat imaginable (gee, I wonder if the small town reporter will become attracted to the big city one, but then will realize that he still loves his environmentalist ex?).  Then there’s a subplot involving a rich and smarmy oil executive (Ted Danson) that wants to use his participation in saving the whales as a feeble publicity stunt and then - gosh darn it - begins to care not only for the whales, but also for the hipster Greenpeace chick that has been making his life a living hell (uh huh).  Then there are the Inuit hunters that want to use the whales to feed their starving families (they have some semblance of an excuse in not wanting to free them) but then change their tunes and decide that saving the whales - and not munching on them - would be a better course of action.  Lastly, there are some extraneous characters that seem included for the purposes of lame comic relief, as is the case with two Minnesota brothers that bring their ice-melting machine to Alaska to help the rescue efforts; they’re like rejected simpleton extras from FARGO. 

BIG MIRACLE also fails to deal with…well…some big issues, like whether the media actually gave a more of a damn about the plight of these whales and pitied them or more about gaining valuable viewership.  Also, what of the political maneuvering by both the U.S. and Russia at the time?  Did they contribute resources and aid because they cared or because they saw it as a race to see who could gain more socio-political clout and respect?  Also, the real-life rescue effort cost a then-whopping $1 million and was criticized by some scientists around the world as to whether or not it really did anything to ensure the whales’ long-term survivability.  BIG MIRACLE sidesteps pessimism as if it were a damning plague to its cheerful entertainment value.  I don’t mind films that have gracious ideals and want to tell reality-based/feel-good stories, but BIG MIRACLE is so mournfully by-the-numbers in its efforts to dutifully put smiles on our faces that it becomes tiresomely dull as a result.  

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