‘Big Miracle': Feel-Good Whale Tale's Appeal Is No Fluke

Ken Kwapis’ based-on-fact “Big Miracle” has likable characters and is smart enough to stand out from the pack of so-so spring film offerings

At this time of year, when the studios mostly schedule generic programmers and dump the turkeys for which they once had higher hopes, it’s a pleasure to find a movie that’s a couple notches better than it had to be.

That would be “Big Miracle,” a family-friendly drama inspired by the true story of highly publicized efforts in 1988 to free three gray whales trapped inland by ice in Alaska near the Arctic Circle.

One doesn’t want to oversell the movie — no one is going to be mentioning this one come Oscar time next year — but if you’re looking for a passable film to take the kids to this weekend, “Miracle” offers a smart enough take on its feel-good plot to keep adult viewers tuned in.

The movie’s basic story is grounded in fact: in the fall of 1988, the attempts to free three, trapped whales, an adult male and female and their baby, in tiny Barrow, Alaska, turned into a huge international story.

The film, directed by Ken Kwapis (“He’s Just Not That Into You”), focuses on various folk, some based on real persons and some fictional, who are trying to free the whales.

They include Adam Karlson (John Krasinski), a nice guy local TV reporter; Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a Greenpeace advocate who is Adam’s former girlfriend; J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), an oil company bigwig who aids the rescue effort; and Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a local Eskimo boy whose grandfather is trying to teach him the old ways.

The cast is competent, with Barrymore and Danson making the biggest impressions. She does so by giving her underwritten heroine edge, portraying her as sometimes irritating and over-zealous, and he with his amusing strutting as a puffed-up, smirking captain of
industry.

What “Miracle” does especially well is to mix inspiration with hard-nosed politics. It makes clear that while trying to save the whales was laudable and a publicity coup for its various participants, the financial cost –in the millions– was exorbitant.

It also deftly illustrates how varying, and sometimes opposing, political agendas come into play as each group tries to use the rescue effort to their own advantage. The White House (during the final months of the Reagan administration) hopes to enhance its dismal environmental record by encouraging the rescue efforts. Greenpeace sees a chance to raise its profile, an oil company wants to generate positive publicity, and the indigenous population of Barrow profits from the sudden influx of reporters by charging exorbitant rates for hotels and food.

The movie is less effective in portraying the rekindled love story between Adam and Rachel, which gets short shrift amidst the rescue efforts and politics.

News junkies will be amused by, and feel nostalgia for, the many contemporaneous clips that pop up featuring bygone network news anchors, including Peter Jennings, Connie Chung, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw.

And near the end of the movie, there is a humdinger of a Sarah Palin joke that’s all the more effective because it is slipped in without fanfare and will go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with her brief stint as a TV sports anchor early in her career.