Saving the whales
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Feb. 3, 2012
In this highly partisan era, when common ground seems to be located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, it's comforting to revisit 1988, when people from many backgrounds stumbled upon a unifying goal. What issue could possibly ally Greenpeace activists and oil executives, big-city journalists and rural Inuits, even Reagan and Gorbachev? The sweetly beguiling "Big Miracle," based on a true story, has the answer: three whales.
As the family-friendly adventure opens, television reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is hard at work, uncovering the fluffiest of feature stories in Alaska's frigid confines. After a hard-hitting segment on an avocado's journey to a small-town restaurant, Adam stumbles upon a potentially career-changing story. Gray whales - a mother, father and baby - have become trapped under ice while making their annual migration south. The mammals' only temporary salvation is a circular break in the frozen surface, through which they occasionally pop up for air. But without human intervention and some way to get them to ice-free water, the whales will be dead in days.
Adam's news flash brings an influx of visitors to the Arctic Circle. The circus includes a smarmy oil tycoon (Ted Danson); a comely Los Angeles-based reporter (Kristen Bell); Adam's ex-girlfriend, a militant Greenpeace advocate (Drew Barrymore), and a couple of goofy yet enterprising Minnesotans who specialize in de-icing. Each has his or her own interests in mind, but all ultimately agree to help figure out how to save the whales. Politics are politics, however. When the last resort turns out to be Soviet aid, it's hard to say what the next move will be.
Cold War-era bonding over whales? It would sound utterly absurd if it weren't based on fact. And that's part of what makes this movie fun for adults. This is a look back at a time when a big-shot executive might have barked, "Have the girls put out a press release," or a military commander crow, "I'll be damned if I'm going to let those Reds come in here and save the day." Archival news footage adds credence to the fictionalized retelling. (Be on the lookout for a Sarah Palin cameo from back in the day.)
Where kids are concerned, the story has the necessary ingredients for a good, squeaky-clean action/adventure. Plans are hatched then scrapped during the race against the clock; lessons are learned; gaps bridged. But the movie generally avoids melting into a fondue of sentimental cheese and teachable moments. Part of that is thanks to the first-rate cast, which keeps things breezy. Krasinski delivers lines with an ease that perfectly mimics witty, everyday banter, while the rest of the impressive roster features Stephen Root, Rob Riggle and Tim Blake Nelson, none of whom are generally associated with kids fare.
Some of the politics, not to mention the increasingly crowded playing field of characters and plot lines, could prove to be a bit much for very young children. During a Saturday morning screening, some little ones got restless around the 80-minute mark. But the harrowing finale should reset short attention spans.
As the minutes tick down, the sentimentality picks up. But chalk that up to the enigmatic creatures, which grab hold of human hearts no matter one's politics or affiliations. Whales just have a way of bringing people together. If only there was a way to bring orcas and belugas into more congressional debates.
Contains mild language and mature themes.