A relatively engaging based-on-true-events fish story, “Big Miracle” satisfies all of the requirements of the inspirational true story and just might warm your heart despite its icy locale.
“Miracle” centers around Adam Carlson (John Krasinski, best known from “The Office”), a TV news reporter in Alaska in the 1980s who dreams of hitting the big time. He is a newshound, watching the wires and studying the reporters in the big markets, hoping to catch someone’s eye and escaping the frozen north.
He strikes gold when he reports on the story of a family of gray whales trapped under ice, five miles from open ocean with only a small hole that allows them to surface. The hole is quickly icing over, and the whales are battered as they are forced to contend with the ice. If they don’t get to open water soon, they will perish.
Adam reports on the whales’ plight and the story hits big, making the nightly national news. Suddenly the sleepy town becomes the eye of a media firestorm.
Further complicating matters is Adam’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (Drew Barrymore), a Greenpeace activist who takes a shine to the whales, putting an even hotter, more controversial spotlight on the town and the delicate balance in the fragile relationship between the white residents and the Eskimo locals, who want to kill the whales and feed their tribe.
“Miracle” is a decidedly family-friendly, by-the-numbers affair, giving a solid overview of the situation in an accessible manner thanks to its solidly constructed script and workmanlike direction from Ken Kwapis. There is a lot to juggle, and the script is perhaps even a bit too ambitious, playing Adam as the big-hearted journalist who fights his colleagues’ coldness to the whales, gives him two (count ’em) love-story arcs with Barrymore and a big-city reporter played by Kristen Bell, and peacemaker with the Eskimos, all the while playing the likable everyman.
Then we have the supporting cast, led by Ted Danson (a real-life environmental activist) as the ambitious oil man who wants to drill Alaska but finds that his interests might be served better by playing the environmental hero. A throwaway scene between Danson and his wife (Kathy Baker), where she manipulates him into helping out, is particularly charming. Dermot Mulroney is engaging enough as a National Guard officer leading the rescue mission who gets a cute but ultimately pointless (narratively speaking, at least) romance with a White House staffer (Vinessa Shaw).
The film is buoyed with solid performances by old standbys like Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Stephen Root (“Office Space”), and John Michael Higgins (“Bad Teacher”), all solid character actors who neither offend nor particularly stand out.
There is a lot of fat that could be trimmed. There are a variety of period-specific cameos made by way of archival footage and, in one case, a distractingly bad stand-in for President Ronald Reagan. Politics of course plays a large part of the film, with the Bush-Dukakis presidential race taking center stage and, later, the notion of refusing help from a certain rival nation because we haughty Americans don’t want them to swoop in and take all of the credit for saving the day.
There’s a sense that the filmmakers were trying to squeeze in as many stories as they can of the real-life characters, a noble notion done at the occasional expense of lean storytelling. (An end-credits sequence introduces the viewers to the real-life characters alongside their Hollywood counterparts.)
At the risk of taking a political stance of my own, there is one specific “cameo” I’d like to address. I won’t divulge who it is other than to say this person is in the news quite often these days and her appearance is a rather strong quip toward the end of the film. Most interesting is that she gets a credit at the end; I noticed her name in the credits but admit I wasn’t paying attention to see if other figures who had archival cameos like Larry King, Tom Brokaw and many others got one as well. It would make quite the interesting statement should this person receive a listed credit, and the paycheck that goes along with it, for offering her mug in the film while her contemporaries did not.
In all, “Big Miracle” is a movie worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a family-friendly flick — something that will gently tug the heartstrings and give the kids (and perhaps the adults as well) a fun, harmless history lesson. It’s unabashedly saccharine but has just the right amount of cynicism to keep it grounded and entertaining.