[Screen It]


(2012) (Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski) (PG)

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Drama: In 1988, a reporter inspires everyone from Greenpeace and Big Oil to the White House and the Soviet Union to get involved in freeing three gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in Alaska.
In 1988, a family of three gray whales became trapped beneath rapidly forming ice in Alaska. The story was first reported by local newsman, Adam Carlson (JOHN KRASINSKI), who dreams of landing a job stateside and senses the whales' plight could be his ticket to bigger and better things. His story goes national and attracts the attention of multiple people: Greenpeace activist and former girlfriend, Rachel (DREW BARRYMORE); hotshot L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (KRISTEN BELL); and White House staffer Kelly Meyers (VINESSA SHAW), who senses this could be just the thing to shore up President Reagan's spotty environmental record.

Also looking for positive PR is oil industry executive J.W. McGraw (TED DANSON), whose wife, Ruth (KATHY BAKER), convinces him that whoever saves those whales will look like a hero to the world. He manages to convince the military under the command of Colonel Scott Boyer (DERMOT MULRONEY) to use his helicopters and a special ice-cutting barge to free the whales who have now been affectionately nicknamed Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam.

Plummeting temperatures and the fact that Bam Bam has fallen ill and is severely scarred from banging his head against the jagged ice start to complicate matters. Eventually, some very unlikely sources play a key role in a last-ditch rescue effort. They include Malik (JOHN PINGAYAK) and Nathan (AHMAOGAK SWEENEY), a native Inupiat grandfather and his grandson; Karl (JAMES LeGROS) and Dean (ROB RIGGLE), two Minnesota inventors who believe they have a de-icing gizmo that can help; and a nearby Soviet naval ship.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I didn't expect to like "Big Miracle" nearly as much as I did. In fact, I'm really quite over the moon for this movie. Is it shamelessly manipulative? Oh, my word, yes! It's everything the commercials and the trailer promise. Heart strings will be pulled. Cockles will be warmed. Hankies will be dampened. Yeah, you could say it's this year's "Dolphin Tale." Both are based on true stories. Both are made with family audiences in mind. Both invariably compelled me to seek out a nice Red Lobster dinner afterwards.

But like that meal, "Big Miracle" is one to be savored and appreciated. It's a surprisingly layered film that is at its best when it steps out of its black-and-white main narrative and explores the gray areas of what happens when competing interests get involved for a good cause. The film is based on the 1988 rescue of a family of gray whales who became trapped underneath a field of rapidly expanding ice in Alaska. A young reporter named Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) broke the story and, before long, news crews from all over the globe descended on little Barrow, Alaska, to cover the complicated rescue effort.

And when I say complicated, I do mean complicated. One of the strengths of "Big Miracle" is that it embraces the challenge of showing the many, many players who had to put their differences aside to work together. There is Rachel (Drew Barrymore), the headstrong, ultra-liberal Greenpeace activist who wants to save the whales and advance her environmental cause. There is J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), the Big Oil executive who wants to spin the situation into some positive PR for himself and his company. There is the Inupiat tribe of native Alaskans led by Malik (John Pingayak), who agree to help free the whales so the world will not see them as savages out to harvest the creatures for food.

At the same time, this being 1988, the Reagan administration is on its way out and White House staffer Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) is eager to use the rescue mission as a way to shore up the Gipper's somewhat spotty environmental record. The Russians also factor into the mix, too, as the U.S. must eventually decide whether to accept help from a nearby Soviet vessel possibly capable of breaking through the ice and freeing the whales.

Being a child of the '80s, I was amazed at how well this film just nails the year 1988. The period detail from the old Pepsi logos to Def Leppard and Guns n' Roses on the radio to the hairstyles and even the shoes are all spot on. Director Ken Kwapis ends up showing off how well he was able to recreate it all (some of the original Alaskan locations were used) by giving a closing credits comparison reel of the real events as they happened and the recreations he and his cast and crew were able to pull off. Kwapis and Co. even manage to work in a Sarah Palin bit, too, that won't offend her supporters…but will nonetheless elicit a laugh in the audience.

And, yes, the film is indeed involving. Complications ranging from brutal weather to human error to the failing health of the baby whale stand between the characters and a happy ending. Parents be warned. There is a bit of tragedy late in the film that you may need to talk more sensitive youngsters through. But unlike last week's "One for the Money," which ultimately felt like a cheap TV movie version of what should have been a cinematic story, Kwapis does a great job in giving this tale the big-screen treatment. Some of the Alaskan photography is quite stunning. And he and his casting director see fit to populate even some of the smallest roles with solid motion-picture actors like Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, and John Michael Higgins.

The film is solid, smart entertainment for more than just the target demographic, but for a large cross-section of audience members. And in this day and age, THAT is a pretty big miracle! I give it a very solid 7 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed January 28, 2012 / Posted February 3, 2012

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