Mark Reviews Movies

Big Miracle


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ken Kwapis

Cast: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeny, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell

MPAA Rating: PG (for language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 2/3/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 2, 2012

Here is yet another movie "inspired by a true story" that features so much footage of the real-life people and events during the end credits that we immediately think a documentary about the same story probably could have been produced.  At the end of Big Miracle, we see the spirited spokeswoman from Greenpeace stand up at a meeting announcing the oil-drilling rights to a spot of land in Alaska and demand that the organization's own bid be read for the public record.

We see an assortment of television reporters on the scene in the desolate winter wasteland where a trio of gray whales is trapped—surrounded by solid ice save for a small open space through which they can breathe. We see the skeptical but determined National Guardsman discussing the plan to drag an oil company's high-tech hover barge to the scene by helicopters.

Who knows why we don't see the CEO of said oil company in any of the video or photo clips; perhaps his real-life equivalent thought it would be bad public relations. If such is the case, he and/or the company are wrong, because Big Miracle takes laborious effort to present every side of its story. It's telling that the screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (based on the book by Thomas Rose) must have one character state that another is the true hero of the affair for clarification.

The city of Barrow, Alaska, has the distinction of being the northernmost city in the United States. It is 1988, and Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a TV reporter out of Anchorage, is about to wrap up his stay there covering local interest stories. On a whim, he follows Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeny), the grandson of the leader of the local Inupiat people Malik (John Pingayak), to a dead-end of a story. In the process, Adam discovers a family of gray whales that has separated from its migration herd.

The whales are essentially landlocked, stuck in a small area where the ice is thin enough for them to break through for air. With the already-freezing weather growing colder by the day, it is only a short matter of time before the ice becomes too firm for them to crack. They will drown if something isn't done to rescue them.

Meanwhile, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), who works for Greenpeace, is fighting to stop the oil tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) from buying land to expand his company's oil drilling. As hard as the movie tries to avoid taking a position on any of its overt political text, it inadvertently does so with Rachel, erring in portraying her not as passionate and dedicated to a cause but obsessed with one to the point of blindness to everything else.

This is, of course, the point of her minor character arc, but the impression Barrymore gives is off-putting. We easily imagine Rachel standing on a street corner, soliciting donations or signatures to a group of people while unable or unwilling to take the hint that, perhaps, the walk to work isn't the ideal time for most people to want to hear a lecture.

Anyway, the whales are stuck, and Rachel wants to free them. Adam is her ex-boyfriend (He eventually came to same conclusion about her that we do fairly quickly) and wants to help out beyond just reporting the struggle. Over the course of their mission, Barrow is overrun by TV reporters (including one from Los Angeles played by Kristen Bell on whom Adam has a crush—one guess how that turns out) and an assortment of folks who want to lend a hand.

The amount of characters here is overwhelming, and Amiel and Begler juggle them with little finesse. The large majority of the central ones serve only as vessels for talking points on environmentalism, free market enterprises, or, in the case of the Inupiat community, the importance of balancing tradition with the possibility of being seen in a negative light by people who might not understand the ways of other people. Malik's immediate impulse is to kill the whales to meet the necessary quota for the survival of his people throughout the winter; after the cameras arrive, he wisely announces to the Inupiat council that all people will see is blood.

The story introduces too many characters to name individually, though it hardly matters. This is not the tale of any individual but a collective, a point director Ken Kwapis repeatedly makes by cutting to various folks watching and talking about the story of the whales. The leader of the National Guard effort (played by Dermot Mulroney) to bring in the hover barge learns the importance of the whales' struggle through the help of a Reagan aide (played by Vinessa Shaw), the oil tycoon sees that there's more to the task than an opportunity for PR, and everyone cheers on a massive Soviet icebreaker in a sort of global solidarity.

The progression of characters is not unique but communal. There's something admirable about the attempt to incorporate so many diverse beliefs, but Big Miracle does so to the point of sacrificing narrative cohesion. It's all well-intentioned but hardly any good.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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