An international effort to free three gray whales – Bonnet, Crossbeak, and Bone – briefly made headlines in October of 1988. In the Beaufort Sea near the town of Point Barrow, Alaska, an Inuit hunter discovered the whales trapped beneath pack ice; using only chainsaws and water pumps, the hunter and his fellow villagers took it upon themselves to cut through the ice and attempt to lead the whales towards open water. A week later, word had already spread to the remainder of the Inuit community, local biologists, and an Anchorage news station. The story then caught the attention of national media journalists, leading to a series of actions that became known as Operation Breakthrough. Whale biologists, the United States Department of State, and two Soviet icebreakers all became involved. By the end of the month, the calf whale had died. And although the icebreakers successfully broke through a ridge of Arctic ice, the fate of the remaining two whales could not be determined.
It comes as no surprise to me that Big Miracle, a dramatization of Operation Breakthrough, not only renames the whales Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam but also presents audiences with a more conclusive ending. It also doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Movies like this give us what we often times don’t get in real life, namely a sense of optimism, the satisfaction of achieving the impossible, and most importantly, emotional resolution. We go to them not only expecting to feel good, but actually craving it. If you think I’m wrong, you need only to reflect on the strong positive reactions to Free Willy, Dolphin Tale, and even non-marine animal movies as recent as War Horse. I value authentic films that deal with life’s harsh realities, but I also recognize that we need movies like Big Miracle in our lives. They’re entertaining, but more to the point, they instill hope, even if it’s only for a few hours.
In terms of marine-themed movies, its most recent basis of comparison is Dolphin Tale, which was also a dramatic adaptation of a true story. Although both films show considerable artistic license for the sake of appealing to a family audience, Big Miracle is refreshing in that it isn’t quite as innocent. It’s made clear, almost from the very start, that the effort to save the whales has less to do with the whales themselves and more to do with the characters’ personal, professional, and political agendas. It’s not about setting aside their differences and working together so much as it is about doing what it takes to make a point and get ahead. In a few instances, director Ken Kwapis has the temerity to espouse the validity of opposing viewpoints. Ultimately, it’s good to know that the all the partisanship and personality deficits are only bringing the whales that much close to freedom.
We have an Anchorage news reporter named Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), who has been living in Point Barrow for four years covering menial stories, many centering around the town’s only Mexican restaurant; when he discovers the whales trying to break through the ice for air, he realizes that this could be his opportunity to enter larger, more respected news organizations. We have Adam’s ex-girlfriend, a Greenpeace activist named Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), who protests everything from Alaskan oil drilling to Inuit whaling and sees the trapped whales as a way to give Greenpeace a bigger voice. We have the Inuit people; although they rely on whales for food, they recognize that the American journalists will interpret their actions as murder instead of survival, and so they join the rescue effort to paint themselves in a better light.
We have J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), an oil tycoon whose company won the rights to drill for oil in the Point Barrow area. His wife (Kathy Baker), rather cleverly, subliminally convinces him that funding the transportation of an icebreaking hovercraft will give his company good P.R. A White House aide named Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) thinks along similar lines; this rescue effort would not only add credibility to Vice President George Bush’s election campaign, it would also do wonders for turning the public’s attention away from the mistakes of the Reagan administration. She gets into contact Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), who begrudgingly oversees the mission to transport the hovercraft towards Point Barrow.
The list goes on. There’s a Los Angeles news reporter (Kristen Bell), who isn’t taken seriously by her superiors, is always under pressure to look beautiful for the camera, and is just as ambitious as Adam. She’s also aware that, because of the attention the whales are getting, the public remains unaware of the thirty-plus wars going on in the world. And then there’s a pair of Minnesota businessmen who see this rescue as an opportunity to test their ice-melting fans and ultimately drum up business. It all comes down to all-American heroism, which seems to be the attitude that unifies everyone in this effort. So imagine the shock and reluctance when it becomes clear that the assistance of a Soviet icebreaker ship will be required. How nice of Big Miracle to remind us that, however momentarily, even enemies can believe in the same cause.
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