Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: "Big Miracle"

Yes, “Big Miracle” is a sappy story about some whales trapped in the ice, and the people who came together to save them. It’s a family-friendly tear-jerker, unabashedly trying to wring heartfelt emotions out of the audience, and impart a tasty feel-good message covered by a light sauce of environmentalism, with a side of can’t-we-get-along political optimism.

For one great big Warm Fuzzy, it’s an extremely watchable movie. The cast, led by John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore, are enjoyable to hang out with, and the story has a certain weight of authenticity, since it’s based on a true story that happened in 1988.

The movie uses lots of news clips with Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and others to show what a big story it was back in the day, though I confess I have no memory of it whatsoever.

Krasinski is known for his smart-aleck role on TV’s “The Office,” but he’s had a busy if largely unnoticed film career (16 credits over the past six years, including the little gem “Away We Go”). Here he plays Adam Carlson, a television reporter stuck in Barrow, Alaska, who stumbles across three California gray whales trapped beneath a thick layer of office.

No one quite knows why the mammoth mammals haven’t already migrated southward, though it may have something to do with the fact they’re a family: father, mother and baby. The locals quickly dub them Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm.

Barrymore plays Rachel Kramer, head of the Alaskan Greenpeace chapter, who spends most of her time railing against the big oil companies drilling in the neighboring oceans. When the whales become a national story, she’s soon to arrive on the scene, complicating matters since she and Adam recently ended a romance.

I was pleased that the film does not make their relationship the centerpiece of the story. Most Hollywood movies would have played up the love angle to the maudlin hilt, so credit to screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (working from a book by Thomas Rose) for sticking with the whales. An aura of sexual tension colors Rachel and Adam’s interchanges, but it doesn’t suck all the air out of the room, narratively speaking.

I also enjoyed the way director Ken Kwapis juggled a large cast and competing story elements.

There’s stuff about the tension between the local Eskimos, who hunt whales for food, and the environmentalists; Ted Danson as the chief of Alaska Northern Oil, who volunteers to help as a way to get the pesky Rachel off his back; a National Guard helicopter commander (Dermot Mulroney) unhappy about being handed a PR assignment; a White House official (Vinessa Shaw) who sees a chance to burnish then-outgoing President Reagan’s (weak) environmental record; and Adam’s ambition to get a job in the Lower 48 by sucking up to a star reporter (Kristen Bell) from Los Angeles.

Particularly nice is the interplay between Adam and Malik, the local Eskimo chieftain, and his grandson Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney). The Eskimos see harvesting the whales as the most humane thing to do, but Adam warns Malik how it will play out in the media. Malik is played by first-time actor John Pingayak, who exudes a warm mix of nurturing and command – I was not surprised to learn he is a teacher in real life.

I won’t bother discussing how “Big Miracle” turns out, since even if you don’t remember it’s not hard to guess (or to Google).

All I’ll say is, if one has to have your emotions manipulated, it’s at least a comfort to have them jerked around expertly, with style and wit.

3 stars out of four

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