Starring: John Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell, Vinessa Shaw, Ted Danson, John Pingayak, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Baker, Stephen Root, Rob Riggle, James LeGros, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, Mark Ivanir, Bruce Altman, Shea Wingham, R.F. Daley.
Director: Ken Kwapis
Anonymous Content, Working Title, and Universal Pictures.
Written by: Jack Amiel and Michael Begler; adapted from the book, “Freeing The Whales: How The Media Created The World’s Biggest Non-Event” by Tom Rose.
|“I think Barrow may have one more story left in her…” - Adam Carlson (John Krasinski).Known as Operation Breakthrough, the story of three whales trapped beneath pack ice in the bitter cold of Point Barrow, Alaska captivated the world in October 1988. The rescue efforts made the international news agencies, captivated the three major nightly news programs in the United States and by the time the rescue was completed, Inuits, native to Point Barrow, had joined the fight. As had biologists, scientists, activists, and even the Russian government, banding together to free these trapped whales, including one who was a mere 9 months old.
Big Miracle tells the story of this rescue, as well as about a half-dozen other stories as well, all which serve to muddle and obfuscate from the compelling story that director Ken Kwapis wants to tell. By the time the film is over, we learn the fate of the whales, but we also have to navigate through countless and aggravating subplots that makes these helpless whales seem like an afterthought in their own movie.
John Krasinski takes the lead as Adam Carlson, a fledgling news reporter who is attempting to make it big in Anchorage, Alaska. A news story brought him to the remote and distant Point Barrow, Alaska, and he has settled into the community for a time, befriended by the local Inuit people. However, another opportunity has presented itself for Adam and as he prepares to move away from Point Barrow, he discovers the situation involving the whales when water from a whale’s blowhole breaks through the ice. He documents and edits his findings and then sends it out into the network news pool feed. Unbelievably, Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News edits the piece down to fill about 1:40 at the end of its newscast. Adam’s life changes forever.
With the story of the whales becoming a buzzworthy event, Adam reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Drew Barrymore), an environmentalist with Greenpeace who is as pro-animal rights as they come. She comes to Point Barrow to take a look for herself and before long, news crews descend on the tiny locale, the town’s Mexican restaurant charge inexplicably high prices for their menu items to cash in on the attention, and before long, other important players are pulled into the escalating drama and danger facing these three whales, known as Fred, Wilma, and Bam-Bam, after characters found on the popular television cartoon, “The Flintstones.”
When the story dominating news coverage around the United States and international communities, President Ronald Reagan champions the cause with the Bush/Dukakis presidential election coming soon and one Cabinet member of his administration, Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) sees this as a means of attaining some good press for the President and her party. She successfully lobbies the President to call in the National Guard, and, in turn, has a meeting and subsequent conversations with General Tom Carroll (Dermot Mulroney). Carroll is gruff, but begrudgingly willing to help free the whales.
Equally as skeptical is big money oil man, J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who is convinced by his wife Ruth (Kathy Baker) that perhaps a fair amount of his resources and oil rigging equipment might be of some help to the efforts. Soon, before long, people from all walks of influential life are in Point Barrow, talking over the community and trying to have a say in how these whales should and will be freed. Meanwhile, all three whales are ailing, and Bam-Bam is showing major signs of distress and trauma. It is an all hands on deck approach, eventually involving two entrepreneurs from Minnesota with makeshift ice melting equipment and yet another news reporter (Kristen Bell) that catches Adam’s eye briefly but has questionable motivations.
There is a whole lot going on in Big Miracle and unfortunately, the whales are lost in the shuffle far too often for this film to be a success. Watching Big Miracle, I often tried to decipher what was more important – Adam’s career motivations or the Greenpeace activist who could become a political liability for a party looking to remain in control of the White House. Should I focus on any one of the three romances which occur between these characters or perhaps I should ponder the importance and necessity of whaling and what it means to the Inuit people. Then again, Reagan’s reaching out to Russia at the just concluded Cold War is interesting and the media frenzy that saving the whales caused is an interesting indictment, even in 1988, of a media and press corps sensationalizing a small story into something much, much bigger.
Wait a minute…the whales! I forgot all about the whales! That’s right. Whales are trapped under the ice. We are supposed to be saving them here. Pardon me, I got swept up in whether or not Kristen Bell was going to get her story or whether that opportunistic Wes Handrick (John Michael Higgins) was going to swoop in and…oh, nevermind.
Big Miracle should be about the whales and while yes, the whale rescue occupies a great deal of screen time, so does a whole lot of other fabricated and unnecessary plot devices. I could not help but wonder if screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler honestly believed this film would work as a feature length film or not. The whole approach to telling this story is unnecessarily convoluted and frankly, at times it felt as if the filmmakers cared more about everything else but Fred, Wilma, and Bam-Bam. So why should I care? As human beings, we are (mostly) programmed to feel empathy and compassion for those who cannot help themselves. So naturally, we are swept up in the plight of these whales and want to see them survive. Director Ken Kwapis knows that and manipulates that emotion within us, but hold on…John Krasinski may have just realized that Kristen Bell is not the kind-hearted girl he thought she was, so… Wait, where was I? Oh, the whales.
For all its ramblings, Big Miracle has a few nice moments. The endearing John Pingayak plays a community leader who rallies his Inupiat people to forego tradition and offer a hand in the recovery and when everyone comes together and finally FOCUSES ON THE WHALES, Kwapis finally strikes chords of emotion. A fellow critic shared with me his thoughts that perhaps Big Miracle should have been a documentary and why this story took 24 years to get to the big screen is perhaps more telling than anyone would care to admit. After all, the events did inspire a book in 1989 by journalist Tom Rose entitled, “Freeing The Whales: How The Media Created The World’s Biggest Non-Event”.
Should I See It?
There are people who love this movie and are swept up by the emotion surrounding the rescue efforts. As stated above, I don’t judge anyone who is swept up in the rescue story found within Big Miracle. Families will likely enjoy this film tremendously, as long as they don’t consider or think about anything other than the freeing of the whales.
John Pingayak is wonderful in his role as the leader of the Inuit people caught in the rip and pull of whether to honor their whaling tradition and seize the whales for their own gain or to resist and help the rescue efforts. You want a subplot to divert from the whale rescue? Explore the traditions of the Inuits and how it relates to all of this.
This is a relatively harmless movie and while I am not a fan of how muddled and ADD-addled it is for what it ultimately hopes to be, I see this being watched on a loop in homes across the country when it arrives on home video.
The film is a mess and might be better realized as a documentary. So much unrelated to the whales happens that I just could not care nearly as much as I was supposed to.
Much of the supporting cast are underwritten and are presented as ultimately using the whales perilous situation for personal and selfish gain. So much time is spent on those characters and it is all misguided and foolishly plotted in this regard.
Watch Dolphin Tale instead. A better movie, with similar themes, that focuses well and offers better and more enriching payoffs that seem genuine and true, not false and convenient.