Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Dermot Mulroney, Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Rob Riggle, Stephen Root, Tim Blake Nelson
Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Thomas Rose (Book)
Deleted Scenes; A Big Miracle in Alaska; Truth is Stranger Than Fiction; Audio Commentary; Ultraviolet Digital Copy
In what may very well be one of early 2012's most unexpectedly enjoyable surprises, Big Miracle is more of a minor miracle, a well-rounded and entertaining film taken smack dab out of a late 80's news headline about a small family of gray whales that became trapped by thickened ice in the Arctic Sea near Barrow, Alaska.
The film is actually based on a slightly less sentimental and more cynical book, Tom Rose's "Freeing the Whales," which pokes quite a bit of fun at the media frenzy that surrounded the story of these three whales and how their rescue became a cause that captured the imagination of the American public while involving media from around the world, the local Eskimo community, the oil industry and even the military from the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Big Miracle manages to weave together its sentimentality and cynicism quite nicely, creating a feel good story without the usual maudlin melodrama that so often accompanies this type of film.
Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is a wannabe big city reporter spending his time in the furthest regions of Alaska doing human interest stories while waiting for his one big break that will take him to a bigger city. While filming yet another mundane story in Barrow, Adam spots a family of three gray whales appearing to be trapped in thickened ice with only a small and destined to freeze over hole in the ice to give them their needed air. Adam quickly puts together a piece about the trio of whales and, because "Tom Brokaw loves whale stories," his story is picked up nationally and goes what we'd now consider to be viral. With the media coverage gaining steam, Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), also known as Adam's ex-girlfriend, gets wind of the story and high-tails it to Barrow and trying to talk non-environmentally friendly Alaska governor Haskell (Stephen Root) into aiding the rescue.
As one could probably surmise from the film's rather obvious title, Big Miracle is pretty clearly about the rescue of these whales despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Though, I suppose it's worth noting that there is a touch of realistic sadness in the film as certainly not everything goes as hoped and planned. Almost as important as the whale rescue is the very real human dramas that unfold in Big Miracle, dramas that included the romantic tension between Adam and Rachel, Adam's desperation to make it in reporting, the political dramas that unfold when an otherwise U.S. presidential administration jumps in as much to help George Bush's election chances as anything else, when an oil tycoon (Ted Danson) decides to jump in and assist because it'll probably be good for his business and reputation, when the local Inuits realize that it might be better for their long-term existence to not kill the whales and, finally, when all else fails and it takes the assistance of the Russian Navy to provide crucial assistance at a time when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were only beginning to flirt with the idea of a more cooperative existence.
If this sounds like quite a few storylines to weave together, it is. Fortunately, director Ken Kwapis (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) is used to multiple storylines and he blends it all together almost effortlessly. Kwapis has always had a gift for being able to bring out both the heart and the humor within even the simplest of stories, and the same is very much true here as even when Big Miracle feels a little bit hokey you can't help but completely enjoy it.
It helps that Kwapis has perfectly cast the film, from leading players Barrymore and Krasinski down to the most minute of players. It's not particularly surprising that Krasinski can pull of the role of Carlson, an earnest generally kind-hearted young man whose journalistic success is probably more hindered by his willingness to share the credit than by any lack of talent. Krasinski is his usual charming self here, with one notably stellar scene in which his desire to get the big scoop is outweighed by his concern for Rachel, played to near perfection by Barrymore.
Drew Barrymore is nearly always a winning presence on the big screen, but it's worth noting that her most successful films have worked because she's stayed within her limited range. While I wouldn't exactly call her performance here her best performance, this is easily one of Barrymore's most entertaining and emotionally satisfying performances. One scene in particular, the aforementioned scene with Krasinski, left me breathlessly in awe of how much Barrymore completely nailed the exactly right tone. Anyone who knows Barrymore's history might well say she's almost typecast as a fervent environmentalist, but she deserves tremendous credit for adding remarkable depth to Rachel and embodying her as both fervent and fully human.
The entire supporting cast is strong, as well, with Ted Danson managing to humanize the "evil" oil baron while Dermot Mulroney is terrific as a military man who can't quite buy into the whole idea of risking his men's lives for three whales that aren't even killer whales. Kristen Bell, Stephen Root and Tim Blake Nelson are also great here.
The film does take the occasional wrong turn, such as its portrayal of a couple of Minnesota hicks who've managed to create an anti-freeze that may just be the answer to keeping the holes open long enough for a solution to be discovered. Likewise, Big Miracle does occasionally dissolve into a sea of schmaltz worthy of a classic Disney film (and this is a Universal Pictures film).
But, every time the film takes a detour, it's saved by its spot-on cast and Kwapis's assured and comfortable direction that somehow captures all the cynicism of the media frenzy while never losing sight of the story at the center of it all involving three beautiful whales and the world that suddenly cared about them enough to set aside their differences.
Big Miracle is a great film for the entire family, though its scenes of the struggling whales may at times prove a tad troubling to particularly sensitive younger children. With storylines that will appeal to adults and children alike, Big Miracle is the biggest miracle released in theaters so far in 2012.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic