Maybe it’s just a sign of the aging of the Baby Boom generation, but it seems like everybody nowadays is supposed to be making a Bucket List and checking things off it. Books about the top hundred (or thousand) things that you should do or places that you should go before you die are all over the best-seller lists. But what happens when you end up liking something that you’ve already checked off so much that you want to go back and do it again and again? That could get seriously in the way of working through the rest of the list.
For this reviewer, the activity that I can never revisit often enough – and that I recommend most heartily that you all add to your own Bucket Lists – is going on a whale-watch cruise. Whenever I catch a glimpse of one of these mysterious creatures in its natural habitat, it’s like getting a message from the Divine. Tears come to my eyes. I can’t explain it, but it’s something that happens on a gut level and bears no resemblance whatsoever to gawking at a captive beluga in an aquarium tank.
Seeing a whale, real or mechanical or computer-generated, on film also doesn’t have quite the same effect. Still, even though I opted out of seeing last fall’s big family hit Dolphin Tale, figuring that it would be a little too wholesomely heartwarming for my tastes, I just couldn’t pass up Big Miracle. The new film directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That into You, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) is described in the end credits as “loosely inspired by true events”: an episode that occurred in Point Barrow, Alaska in 1988, documented with a bit less artistic license in the book Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event by Thomas Rose.
The story is told from the point of view of Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), an Inupiat boy who seems more interested in the electronic gadgets that his TV journalist pal Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) can get him from the Lower 48 than in the lessons of traditional lifeways that his grandfather Malik (John Pingayak) is trying to pass down to him. Winter is coming on earlier than usual, and the indigenous residents of Point Barrow find three California gray whales who somehow missed their southward migration, trapped in a freezing sea with only a small hole in the ice for breathing. The Inupiat whaling captains want to harvest the whales to feed their families. Carlson gets interested in the story, and international news outlets start to pick up his footage of the whales.
Then Greenpeace steps in, in the incarnation of Carlson’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore). Now, environmentalists in the movies tend to get stereotyped as saints (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich), crazies (Grizzly Man) or crazed saints (Silent Running, Avatar). Even though I’ve worked in the field, and most of the real environmentalists I’ve known have been sane, hardworking, down-to-earth people, I can’t complain too much about that: I’m still holding out for the day when Robert Redford stops sitting on the movie rights to Ed Abbey’s eco-terrorism comedy The Monkey Wrench Gang and we get to see gonzo Hayduke and friends on the big screen. But I digress.
Kramer, for her part, falls well into the crazed-saint mold. Barrymore may get top billing, but the character isn’t as sympathetic as one might expect if this were a typical cute-critter movie. She’s sarcastic and abrasively self-righteous, but gets off some nastily funny lines (you can tell when she’s about to say something snarky when the actress’ mouth migrates further to one side of her face than seems anatomically possible). She’s at her worst in the scenes with the Inupiats, where her environmental preachiness trumps cultural sensitivity every time. Happily, there is some character growth, as her ex calls a temporary truce in their perpetual bickering so that they can work together to save these three particular whales, and helps her work on sanding some edges off her confrontational style for public relations purposes.
Indeed, PR value as an ulterior motive for good behavior is a theme that runs throughout Big Miracle. Malik is able to talk the Inupiat hunters into sparing the whales on the grounds that the whole world is watching and “All they will see is blood.” A “Drill, baby, drill” oil company executive named McGraw (Ted Danson) starts out as the obvious villain, then is gently persuaded by his closet-environmentalist wife (Kathy Baker, in a small but juicy part) to provide an icebreaking hover barge at the company’s expense to free the whales and thereby cultivate a “greener” corporate image.
Even the Reagan administration and the Russkis get drawn into the drama. A White House secretary (Vinessa Shaw) who gets caught up in the news coverage persuades the president to send in the National Guard to help, and later to allow a conveniently placed Soviet icebreaker to smash through a pressure ridge of ice that cuts off the whales’ path to the open sea, with the argument that it will be good for the administration’s public image and help Vice President Bush beat Dukakis in the upcoming election.
For all the drama, Big Miracle’s script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler has a light touch and brisk pacing that keep the viewer from getting trapped in the kind of treacle that sometimes bogs down movies of this ilk. There’s quite a lot of humor, much of it supplied by Karl (James LeGros) and Dean (Rob Riggle), a hapless pair of Minnesotan tinkerers who come to Point Barrow – also in search of PR value – bearing a melting gadget that they have invented for ice fishermen. They could easily have walked right out of Lake Wobegon.
Somewhat less successful is the attempt at a romantic subplot, with Carlson swaying between his grudging respect for his ex-girlfriend’s passion for the whales and his attraction to Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), an ambitious young TV newswoman who has come up from LA to cover the story. Bell gets to do a drunk scene and a bit of slapstick as a self-described “Barbie” who doesn’t know how to dress for the Arctic with winter coming on. Indeed, some unintended humor is supplied by actors who have clearly never worked further north than LA, chatting casually as they saunter down the streets of Barrow, their faces fully exposed in what we are told is subzero weather. Apparently nobody told them that people in those conditions don’t saunter; they hunch.
Still, Big Miracle manages to keep a deft step ahead of the genre’s clichés and avoid a moralizing tone. Thus it becomes possible to slip in what may be the most subversive moral of all, in these polarized times: that people from opposite ends of the political spectrum can find common ground and work together for a noble cause, even if their motives are less than pure. By the end of the movie, after he has gone giddy from being sprayed by whale spume, the oilman McGraw almost believes his own hype. He has a satisfying scene with Kramer where they declare a degree of mutual respect; she says, “You’re not as easy to hate as I thought,” and he replies, “Neither are you.” It’s a lesson that the whales can teach us all.