In October of 1988 it seemed like the whole world came together for a single amazing story, far above the arctic circle. Three California gray whales had become trapped in the freezing waters off of Point Barrow, Alaska. The single small hole they could use to surface for air was five miles from the open ocean, not to mention the wall of solid ice that formed at the edge of the sea. The situation looked grim, but — as much by accident as anything else — all the pieces of a rescue fell into place. This is a story ripe for a sappy, feel-good treatment, and yet Ken Kwapis manages to present a textured, nuanced story in Big Miracle, even while cleaning up the messy realities to make things suitable for the general moviegoing public.
It all started with Adam Carlson (John Krasinski). He was out shooting footage while on assignment in Barrow from his home news station in Anchorage, when he saw a plume of water in the distance. He got some comments from a representative of the wildlife department (Tim Blake Nelson) and one of the local native whalers (John Pingayak), and sends it off to Anchorage over the satellite hookup. Anchorage airs the footage and puts it on the wire. NBC Nightly News finds itself in need of an extra couple minutes and hey, Brokaw likes these sort of stories. And from there everything takes on a life of its own.
Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler do an excellent job of adapting Tom Rose’s Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event into a script that balances a wide array of competing vantage points and highlights just how big and diverse this story became.
Greenpeace advocate Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) mobilizes to defend the whales from the locals who want to harvest them for food, and of course to go another round with Governor Haskell (Stephen Root) and oil company president J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson). McGraw, for his part, volunteers the use of a “hover-barge” almost 300 miles away in Prudhoe Bay, hoping to spin this story into some positive environmental press for his company. The governor finds himself strong-armed into mobilizing e National Guard, assigning Colonel Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) to use a couple of cargo helicopters to tow the barge through the ice.
But everyone wants a piece of this. Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) is a news reporter in Los Angeles clawing for position with the station’s male chauvinist lead reporter (John Michael Higgins). Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw), working in the White House publicity office sees an opportunity to burnish the Reagan administration’s reputation and help George Bush in the last month of his campaign against Michael Dukakis. Karl Hootkin (James LeGros) and Dean Giowacki (Rob Riggle) see a chance to prove how well their floating heaters work and promote their Minneapolis business. And one perspective is featured that is almost always missed in these sorts of movies: the public at large, watching the news at home. If you weren’t around you might not believe just how big a story it was, and how it captured the nation’s attention.
Kwapis crafts some stunning visuals, from the two skycranes tilted a full forty-five degrees against their tow-ropes to the almost obligatory scenes of Rachel diving with the whales. But I’m actually more impressed by the meticulous use of archival news footage; some reports were reshot — pretty accurately, as you’ll see if you sit through the credits — but for the most part they pulled the original video of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Connie Chung that we saw every night on the evening news. And in one case they managed to blend both techniques in quite a surprising way.
Now, I hate to be a downer, but like I said the reality was a little messier than the story, and lacked the satisfying Hollywood ending. But sometimes history is less about telling the true story, and more about telling the right story. Here we have Greenpeace, oil companies, and the National Guard working together and coming to a mutual respect, if nowhere near an agreement on policy in general; we have the beginning of the public thaw of the cold war; and we have a (true!) sweet little love story on the side, though not at all the one you might expect going in. I think they managed to tell the right story indeed.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.