Big Miracle Review

On the surface, Big Miracle is a by-the-books audience pleaser that dramatizes the 1988 news phenomenon centered around three whales stuck under the ice of northern Alaska and the people that rallied to save them; below the ice, however, the seemingly innocuous story of mammalian camaraderie has a highly cynical streak that questions the motivations of virtually every person involved, making it very unclear as to whether or not this story is really inspiring at all. For the kids, Big Miracle has all the basic staples necessary to keep it fun and light, and, yes, the display of teamwork in spite of the arctic chill is downright heartwarming. Adults might find the whole affair a bit too predictable (even if they didn’t actually live through the event), and combined with its saccharine scripting and aforementioned cynicism, Big Miracle lacks the spontaneity or joy that its title promises.

Reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) has spent the last four years in the chilling temperatures of Alaska working as a correspondent, and his latest assignment to the small town of Barrow is coming to a close. Before he heads out, he entertains the enthusiastic pleas of Nathan, the young Inupiat boy who clings to Adam’s profession as hope that he’ll one day be able to live a life not steeped in the traditions of his whaling family, by filming a few snowmobile stunts by his best friend. With his camera in hand, Adam and Nathan stumble across three whales stuck beneath the ice with only a small hole in the surface for them to get air, and the hole is shrinking fast. If the whales don’t find a way to get under the hundreds of miles of ice to open water, they’ll eventually die. When Adam’s footage goes national, it attracts the attention of all sorts of people willing to lend a helping hand, like Adam’s ex-girlfriend and Green Peace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore), oil magnate McGraw (Ted Danson), the local Inupiat people, and even President Reagan who calls upon the National Guard. As more and more people crowd around the small hole and the whales within, the story becomes a worldwide sensation.

Big Miracle has absolutely zero tricks up its sleeves and in fact it leans too hard on a few too many crutches. One of the big problems involved in telling the story of three whales, is finding a way to humanize them, to make the audience care. After all, these probably aren’t the first whales to ever be at risk of suffocating beneath the ice due to bad luck, but it’s the one where people chose to care. So how do we give whales emotions and then make them known to the audience? Easy, we rely on the hokey, borderline offensive characterization that all native peoples can instinctively communicate with nature. Whenever Big Miracle wants the audience to know how the whales feel, it has the elder Inupiat listen and then translate their underwater warblings into potent human emoting. Combine that with a well-timed swell in the music or a preceding scene about a young Inupiat boy disinterested in learning about tradition, and you have a thoroughly confusing and mixed emotional message about just how important the preservation of their way of life really is.

What perhaps could have gone unsaid when it comes to character motivations, becomes something of a sticking point with each and every character introduced (save for one). For every helping hand, there’s a new ulterior motive to be found. President Reagan wants good publicity to improve the reputation of his administration’s legacy. Tycoon McGraw wants to put a better spin on his reputation to combat the press that says he doesn’t care about the environment (which he didn’t, when he started). Adam wants to break the story that will get him out of his frosty location. Even Rachel, the diehard environmentalist, is revealed to be benefitting from the influx is donations Green Peace receives as part of her time in the national spotlight.

What about the native Inupiats? Surely they’re helping because they love nature and revere the whales? Nope, even they are pressed, almost extorted, into helping save the whales, lest there be huge public backlash that further threatens their traditional way of life. The story and its ultimate outcome warm the heart, but the characters within the affair feel cold and calculating. Wait, can’t people do something good for both altruistic and selfish reasons? Sure, but when the exploration of the latter seems to drown out the former, it’s hard not to feel a bit disheartened instead of uplifted.

Oddly, there’s only one character in the entire film that ends up with a track record that makes them appear wholly decent and uninvolved: a Russian navy captain. Go figure.

"Big Miracle" opens February 3, 2012 and is rated PG. Drama. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Written by Jack Amiel, Michael Begler. Starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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