Wednesday, February 08, 2012

big miracle

From the previews, the movie Big Miracle looked to be pretty predictable fare. Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski team up to save some whales. In a sense, that is exactly what happens, but director Ken Kwapis manages to take the "based on a true story" traditional format and look at the story from a few different angles to come up with a fresh and entertaining film.

Based on the 1989 book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose, Big Miracle reminds audiences of a story that was touching hearts across the country, and eventually the world, in 1988. Three gray whales became trapped beneath the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. After local reporters' news coverage went national, Operation Breakthrough was created, combining the efforts of the local Inuit community, and the U.S. and Russian governments.

The whales have just a relatively small whole to breathe through the ice
Rachel (Drew Barrymore) gets to know the whales
Malik (John Pingayak) shows Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) how to listen to the whales
In the first few minutes of Big Miracle I settled down to watch the stereotypes roll by. And there are a few. Drew Barrymore plays Rachel Kramer, a Greenpeace activist, the obvious do-gooder heroine. The wise local elder, Malik (John Pingayak), who seems to have a mystical connection with nature. Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), an overly ambitious reporter who will do anything to get a story. But then the characters are allowed to show other sides to their personalities.

Rachel fights for animals in peril, and although her cause is just, she is shrill, abrasive and does not encourage cooperation. It's an interesting choice to make the hero of the piece such a prickly difficult person whose personality almost drowns out all the good she is trying to accomplish. We completely understand why reporter Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is her ex-boyfriend. He likes her and respects her, but she is definitely difficult to spend a lot of time with. By the end of the movie we end up liking her too, which says a lot about Barrymore's abilities as an actress. she never tries to charm us. She stays true to who she is, and like a lot of difficult people, she is still worthwhile getting to know a little better.

Ambitious reporter Jill catches Adam's eye (Kristen Bell). she represents a whole world beyond Alaska for him, and the story represents a real chance to move up in a business ruled by men for her. Jill's struggles with being treated like anything other than "Reporter Barbie" take her character beyond the villain or other side of the romantic triangle that other films would have relegated her to. Malik represents another way of life — the Inuit are actually whale hunters — but his character can see both sides, what is best for his people and what is best for the three creatures trapped beneath the ice, and it is he who initiates using chainsaws to cut a path for the whales to follow to the sea when it looks like the National Guard will not be there in time.

Dermot Mulroney plays a by-the-book National Guardsman charged with trying to tow an icebreaker to Barrow. He starts a flirtation with an aide from the Reagan administration (Vinessa Shaw) who believes a rescue will help the image of the outgoing (Reagan) administration. What a Hollywood movie cliché, right? But then we are greeted by wedding pictures of the real couple over the closing credits. Big Miracle weaves in real footage to keep reminding us that this all really happened.

Also on hand are Ted Danson plays an oilman who comes to create some positive P.R. and leaves as a lover of whales, thanks to the subtle maneuvering of his wildlife-loving wife (Kathy Baker), as well as many more familiar faces — Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, James LeGros, Shea Whigham. Some of the characters are so deftly drawn that it is easy to forget that they do not all have a real-life counterpart, like Malik's grandson Nathan, a young Inupiat boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) who dreams of leaving Alaska for the "lower 48." Kwapis has the audience invested in this frozen part of the world and its people that by the end of the movie we want to find out what happens to Nathan in the future.

Big Miracle does serve up a Barrymore/Krasinski romance to fulfill its the Hollywood movie requirements, but that is the least interesting aspect of the movie. Their characters are interesting as individuals. Whether they couple up or not is irrelevant. But what they teamed up to do in 1988 for a trio of whales is important. The ultimate "save the whales" event that may have helped to forever shift national popular perspective about wildlife.
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