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Big Miracle (2012)
Big Miracle is a family drama film starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. The film, directed by Ken Kwapis, is based on the 1989 book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose, which covers Operation Breakthrough, the 1988 international effort to rescue gray whales trapped in ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. The film was released on February 3, 2012. Three California gray whales, trapped in a hole in the ice of the Arctic Circle, are discovered by television news reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski). Their plight is publicized after he does a feature on them, which he hopes might be his opportunity to move up to a larger TV market. His news story draws international attention and sets into motion a massive effort to free the whales from the ice. Drawn into the collaborative rescue work are several normally hostile factions: Inupiat whale hunters, a Greenpeace environmental activist, an oil executive, ambitious news reporters, the National Guard, the American president and politicians on the state, national and international levels. Also joining in the effort are two entrepreneurs from Minnesota, who provide de-icing machines to help keep the hole open.
Say this for director Ken Kwapis: he must know how to make actors comfortable. He's directed great episodes of some of the best TV shows ever made, including Freaks and Geeks, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Larry Sanders Show, while cultivating a side career making inferior big-screen vehicles for small-screen stars like Jason Alexander (Dunston Checks In), Fran Drescher (The Beautician and the Beast), and every young female on network TV in 2005 (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). Big Miracle is his second feature starring his Office-mate John Krasinski. That Krasinski came bounding back after their previous collaboration, License to Wed, which in addition to being terrible failed to boost the careers of anyone involved, must speak to Kwapis's professionalism, friendliness, and excellent work helming a dozen golden-age Office episodes, among other qualities that have little to do with License to Wed itself (again: just terrible).
To their credit, Big Miracle is a lot better than License to Wed; rather than waste its talented (and once again TV-heavy) cast's time, it merely kills it, honorably. Krasinski plays Adam Carlson, a local TV newsman out of Anchorage stuck doing human-interest stories in Point Barrow, Alaska, who stumbles across a family of California gray whales trapped underneath some ice. His report gets picked up nationally, and attracts the attention of Adam's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Drew Barrymore), a Greenpeace rep who flies in, determined to save the creatures.
The movie is nominally about Adam and Rachel, but the most interesting thing about Big Miracle is how it shows disparate groups coming together to address the trapped-whale problem: Rachel represents the activists; Adam and the ambitious Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) lead the many reporters; Ted Danson plays an oil magnate whose wife goads him into helping as a PR mission; Adam is friends with Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a native Alaskan boy; and eventually the National Guard is drawn in, led by Colonel Tom Carroll (Dermot Mulroney). The movie is surprisingly honest about the myriad motivations at play, and when it makes detours to fill in the smaller stories and processes within the larger rescue operation, it feels, however briefly, like a message-y, family-friendly version of a Robert Altman ensemble movie.
The rest of the time, it pretty much resembles a message-y family-friendly movie about saving some whales, which obviously isn't the worst thing in the world. For the most part, Big Miracle resists the obvious temptation to humanize the whales, save for a few teary speeches from Barrymore insisting that they're just like us due to their remarkably humanlike quality of needing help. Apart from those stretches, the movie wisely focuses more on the people who care for these creatures, engineering human-whale contact moments more for the awe factor than the awwww factor.
But despite the many human sides to this story, the actors don't have much to do; Krasinski just cleans up his low-key charmer act, which somewhat diminishes said charm without the deadpan sarcasm of his Office character. Barrymore's unsteady earnestness makes sense for an environmental activist, but Rachel is written to de-emphasize Barrymore's sunniness and good humor; frankly, she's a little whiny (not to mention ill-defined in terms of her place in Greenpeace). This makes the relationship between Adam and Rachel a bit of a slog; it's supposed to be a sweetly traditional arc of proverbial remarriage, but the movie doesn't offer much beyond making sure we know that they are both really, really nice people.
Frankly, Kristen Bell's Jill seems plenty nice, too; a little mercenary, perhaps, but less so than any number of real-life reporters. Bell's likability proves no match for the screenplay's demands, however, which dictate that Adam must be faced with a choice between rekindled good feelings for Rachel and his wretched, misguided attraction to Jill and the soulless professional success she represents. It's not played out so vehemently, of course, but it's present enough to count as underdeveloped.
Still, even the movie's offenses are on the light side. Given the gulf between the hilarious sitcom scripts Kwapis has directed for television and the paradoxically sitcommier fare he puts into movie theaters, it's probably fine that this story (from the screenwriting pair responsible for more big-screen sitcoms like The Prince & Me) requires nothing more than the mildest of faint amusement, and some empathy for those poor whales (not least because they must, as they did in real life, endure nicknames derived from The Flintstones). This is a good-hearted movie, even if it's not all that good.