Revisionist history being what it is, it’s still interesting to view a movie or documentary based on something one remembers. Such is the case with Universal’s newest offering, Big Miracle, starring John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore and directed by Ken Kwapis (“He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants“). Based on the true story of three gray whales trapped under the Alaskan ice with only a small hole to draw air from, the movie only needs to send us back to 1988 in its narrative. That is well within many of our lifelines, so we get a little kick of nostalgia, as well as some wonderful scenes of the Alaskan hinterlands.
Think “The Grey” without the plane crashes, wolves or pretension.
In October 1988, a reporter for an Anchorage news program, Adam Carlson (Krasinski), is lolling away his time in Barrow. He loves the people, but the isolation and crumbs of stories he covers is not enough to make him happy. He has also recently broken up with his strident Greenpeace activist girlfriend, Rachel Kramer (Barrymore), so he spends much of his time watching satellite news feeds from the lower 48 and entertaining a young moppet from the local Inupiat tribe, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney).
While filming another lame story, however, Carlson discovers that a family of three gray whales has become trapped in the ever-freezing ice that leads to the waterways the animals need to migrate to the warmer waters of Baja, California. He submits the footage to his station (although the producer believes it to be a throwaway piece) and it is soon picked up by NBC and the rush is on to save the creatures (nicknamed “Fred,” “Wilma” and “Bam-Bam”). As it is, the hole continues to become smaller as winter sets in, causing the whales to have to struggle as they return to the surface to breathe.
Plus, the baby has sustained injuries from being caught in a net and banging its nose continually on the ice.
Accompanying the horde that’s come to see, aid or just get in the way (which includes a White House staffer, a hotshot National Guard pilot, a concerned Soviet ship captain, an ambitious female reporter, a spineless governor, a terrible Reagan impersonator, and two guys from Minneapolis who have invented an ice-melting device), is Adam’s ex, Rachel, who has recently made the news protesting the opening of some areas of the Alaskan frontier to oil drilling by magnate J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson, looking a bit like Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner“).
Some funny scenes here include hotels charging $500 a night and a local Mexican eatery doubling their prices to take advantage of the influx.
After the Inupiat whaling captains are talked out of “harvesting” the creatures, the locals and Greenpeace activists struggle to get the animals to the waterways. The national news outlets duly cover the drama — each day the situation becomes worse and worse for the whales, and since this occurs in the midst of the 1988 presidential campaign (Bush I vs. Dukakis), it shines the light of the suspect ecological record of the Reagan administration. Finally persuaded to get involved by his scheming wife, Ruth (Kathy Baker, “Edward Scissorhands“), McGraw even enlists the National Guard to haul a hovercraft ice breaker to the scene.
Krasinksi (who plays Jim Halpert on “The Office,” but has yet to make a decent film, see “License To Wed,” “Leatherheads” and “Something Borrowed” for proof of that) is low key, but fine here. He has little to no chemistry with Barrymore though (her character is so annoying and intrusive, at times, one wished SHE were trapped in the ice), but that’s not the point of the movie.
The main focus is the whales, made all the more better by the realistic effects that makes most of the shots appear like they are a few feet from the actors. We are riveted to their situation. That’s not to say Big Miracle is a riveting film — far from it. It’s just when the spotlight is on the whale’s plight, we really care about it. The other stuff is just filling (even the obligatory “where are they now” slideshow during the credits).