In the interest of due diligence – OK, mostly just directionless Googling – I looked up the book on which Big Miracle, a fictionalized account of an actual 1988 rescue operation of three gray whales trapped in ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, is based, Tom Rose’s Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event. At the time, Kirkus Reviews noted that “Barrow has the highest rates in America of murder, rape, suicide, alcoholism, and wife-beating.” Huh. Ripe enough stuff for a CSI: Arctic Outpost, but not exactly fodder for the Hollywood machine. Predictably, Big Miracle’s creative team has sanded down the rough edges and brought to the fore the most universally soothing and inspiring aspects of the story. Less predictably, it’s a moving entertainment.
The Office’s John Krasinski, leaning on that appealing mix of decency and doofiness on which he’s built a career, plays Alaskan TV reporter Adam Carlson. Looking for a big break, he gets it by way of those very big whales: two adults and their struggling offspring, who, having overstayed their time in Alaska, find a thick sheath of new ice blocking their path to warmer climes. Adam’s story gets picked up by the affiliate, and soon enough, the major networks take notice, especially after Adam’s fire-breathing ex, Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Barrymore), gets involved. In short order, tiny Barrow is filled to bursting with reporters smelling human-interest gold, military and government officials injecting their two cents, an oil CEO with an agenda (played by Ted Danson with the same jovial-corporate-bastard routine he finessed on FX’s Damages), and the local Inuit tribe, struggling with its own subsistence needs (whale meat numbering high on the list) and the white-hot glare of a media spotlight.
The logistics of Operation Breakthrough, as it came to be known, are mind-boggling but skillfully dispatched, and sturdy director Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) mixes the right jigger amounts of suspense, sentimentality, carefully portioned environmentalist outrage, and humor. (Half the laughs come by way of the Eighties milieu; I toed a guffaw when a government worker uttered the words, “Gorbachev has been asking us to trust him on this glasnost thing.”) Big Miracle is all formula, but with just enough savvy to temper the gentle-spiritedness and qualify it as that rare family film with an emotional manipulativeness that doesn’t leave a sick slick in the mouth.