The title isn’t an exaggeration. It was something of a “Big Miracle,” the way the plight of a family of gray whales, stranded under the Alaska ice, captivated the country and forced oil men and environmentalists, natives and Cold War foes to team up back in the waning days of the Reagan administration.
And it’s no small miracle that the story of that nearly forgotten moment makes for a delightful family movie. Political cynicism, media opportunism, dogmatic native “tradition,” corporate greed and environmentalist stubbornness are each, in turn, dashed against this sunny Ken (“License to Wed”) Kwapis confection.
John Krasinski plays the very definition of small-time TV reporter, Adam, whose “Adam Around Alaska” stories aren’t the ticket to the big time he wants. Then he stumbles across three whales — parents and a baby — clinging to an air hole in the ice outside Barrow, Alaska. They’re miles from open ocean, too far to hold their breath. They won’t last more than a day or two, the state wildlife biologist (Tim Blake Nelson) and Inupiat tribal elder (John Pingayak) tell him. Adam’s “tragedy unfolding here in Barrow” story gets picked up by the network, because, as one unnamed wag cracks, “Brokaw’s a sucker for whale stories.”
And next thing you know, every network is on the story. Alaskan Greenpeace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore) is shrieking, “These whales are in TROUBLE!” The tribal whaling council has to be shown how bad “harvesting” the whales will look to the world. Mr. Big Oilman (Ted Danson) has to be conned into seeing the PR value in letting “some hippies use my (icebreaker) barge to save some whales.”
The timber-cutting, oil-drilling, Greenpeace-hating governor (Stephen Root) is forced to call in the National Guard. The officious National Guard chopper pilot (Dermot Mulroney) has to be convinced this “mission” is worthy of his men. (“Are they at least KILLER whales?”)
And the White House administration that nobody would have called “green” gets on board for a little legacy-polishing.
It’s a slight film of simple, obvious charms. But screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler get the little things right. Every character has a function. Barrymore and Danson present the “environment” vs. “jobs” debate. Nelson is the “explainer,” delivering little doses of science. Pingayak passes on native customs and native appreciation for this animal his people depended on for millennia. Kristen Bell represents the shallow “big time” in TV news that faces Krasinski’s character. Adam, that character, is the mediator, getting these disparate folk to get along. And Mulroney’s no-nonsense turn as the National Guardsman reminds us of the stakes, animal and human, in a climate this hostile.
“Nothing’s that simple in the Arctic.”
I love the way the would-be villains are given a human side and the supposedly righteous — the natives and environmentalists — have unpleasant touches. Barrymore’s Rachel is shrill and dismissive; Danson’s oilman has a soft streak. Every character needs to learn to listen to everybody else.
Yeah, there are plenty of Hollywood touches. But it’s amazing how much of this story is true. Stay through the closing credits (clips of the real people and real timeline) for proof. That “true story” appeal, given a light spin, makes this whale of a tale a charming feel-good movie that the whole family can enjoy.
Opens today at theaters everywhere; rated PG for language; 104 minutes.