A Reagan-era whale of a tale is fictionalized in broad, simplistic but modestly engaging strokes in “Big Miracle.” Recounting how the media, the military and eventually the world’s top leaders joined forces to save a family of cetaceans trapped in the northwest arctic, this family-friendly outing captures the story’s human snowball effect with a measure of sly, satirical wit, if also an excess of boilerplate subplots and jokey ’80s details. Skimping somewhat on the emotional payoff typical for a tale of animal rescue, the pic won’t make auds blubber but does well enough by its subject to post respectable numbers.
Working from Thomas Rose’s book “Freeing the Whales” and news reports at the time, scribes Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have invented a number of composite characters to trace how a local story became a matter of international interest in an era before Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. It’s October 1988 when hard-working TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) breaks the story of three gray whales imprisoned by rapidly forming ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. Regularly breaching the surface through a tiny breathing hole, the whales will die soon unless they can make their way back to the open ocean, a five-mile passage blocked by impenetrable walls of ice.
Leading the effort to rescue “Fred,” “Wilma” and “Bamm-Bamm” is Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), an outspoken Greenpeace activist with a talent for making people angry, including ex-b.f. Adam. As journalists descend on Barrow, among them ambitious Los Angeles reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), the whale-friendly PR opportunities prove innumerable and irresistible: The local Inupiat tribespeople call off their plan to harpoon the creatures, realizing that their complex, symbiotic relationship with these majestic mammals won’t be understood by the outside world. Oil tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), no friend of the environment, offers the use of his massive hoverbarge to break the ice, a difficult mission undertaken by gruff Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) and other members of the Alaska National Guard.
By the time President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev get involved, bringing new meaning to the term “Cold War,” director Ken Kwapis has etched a portrait not of animals in need, but of human beings serving their own interests; tellingly, Rose’s book was subtitled “How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.” Given the more heart-tugging approach of such whale-captivity mellers as “Free Willy,” the gently cynical spin proves amusing, even refreshing, and the film enlists a small army of terrific character actors to fill in every margin, including Tim Blake Nelson as a state wildlife official, Stephen Root as Alaska’s governor, John Michael Higgins as a glory-hogging reporter and Kathy Baker as McGraw’s shrewdly compassionate wife.
Where “Big Miracle” runs aground is its insistence on showing how well it knows its era. Degraded clips of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather are regularly shoehorned in, abetting production designer Nelson Coates’ painstaking re-creation of late-’80s newsrooms crammed with tape-reel machines and IBM typewriters. An Alaskan boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) makes a point of listening to U2 and Guns N’ Roses on his Walkman. By the time Adam jokingly likens another character to Gordon Gekko, you half expect someone to turn to McGraw and point out his resemblance to the guy from “Cheers.”
Amid all the hullabaloo, it’s up to Rachel to remind everyone, the audience and filmmakers included, that it’s about the whales, stupid. Barrymore (reteaming with Kwapis after “He’s Just Not That Into You”) throws herself into the role, quite literally in one lovely subaquatic sequence when she dons scuba gear and tends to the whales. She’s less fun on land: By calling out everyone else’s ulterior motives, the character too often comes off as a self-righteous killjoy, a tactic that works against Barrymore’s buoyant screen presence and makes the film’s attempts to reunite Rachel with Adam generally unexciting.
“Big Miracle” is at its strongest when it addresses the often suspenseful logistics of keeping three whales alive in plunging subzero temperatures, and to its credit, it doesn’t soft-pedal the story’s cruelest twist. For all that, things wrap up not with a big swell of emotion but with a muted sense of relief that, while admirably unsentimental, makes this an unlikely choice for the inspirational homevid pantheon.
Kwapis and his crew have made sense of the film’s arctic geography in technically inventive fashion, using seamless effects to replicate the remote Barrow ice field for the Anchorage-based shoot. The whales themselves are represented by a series of lifelike animatronic puppets designed by Glasshammer Visual Effects, which also serviced 2002’s “Whale Rider.”