The other night Heidi and I went to see the movie Big Miracle, about the rescue of three Pacific Gray Whales off the coast of Alaska near Point Barrow. Surprisingly, this was not a cheesy film with a completely gift-wrapped ending. Considering how many interest groups and characters were involved in this story, based in part on the book by Thomas Rose, director Ken Kwapis managed to create a seamless production worthy of viewing for both entertainment and an education in sociology.
Rose’s non-fiction book was originally entitled Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, and indeed, whales routinely die from the predicament of a prematurely freezing ocean each year. What made it newsworthy was simply the fact that there was a nearby satellite transmitter. The 1988 story quickly went the analog version of “viral,” and the media descended on Point Barrow en masse to cover the action.
The actors could have played their roles in a stereotypic way, but in most cases they managed to avoid that trap. Drew Barrymore plays an appropriately angry and suspicious Greenpeace activist. Ted Danson is an understandably eco-illiterate oil baron who initially engages his company in the “rescue” for public relations reasons. Newcomers Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak play an Inupiat pre-teen and his grandfather, respectively. They stole the show, playing sympathetic indigenous people with wit and wisdom.
Maybe the only characters that were disappointingly self-serving were the media reporters that got the whole circus started in the first place. John Krasinski and Kristen Bell are newspersons mostly obsessed with their own career advancement throughout the film, though Krasinski is also the ex-boyfriend of Barrymore’s character and is thus somewhat ambivalent about pursuing a future in the “lower 48.” You have two guesses as to how that relationship ends in the movie.
Ironically, an actual romance evolved in the true story, and was also played out in the film. Air National Guard Colonel “Scott Boyer” and Whitehouse West Winger “Kelly Meyers” (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw) portray Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger, who really did fall in love over the course of this adventure. During the credits one sees their real-life wedding photos.
The overarching plot still boils down to the whales, though, and I won’t spoil the ending. However, after all was said in done back in 1988, no one involved can say with any certainty that more than one whale made it out into the open ocean. Beleaguered by its ordeal, who is to say it had the strength to complete its migration?
The lesson to be learned, reviewers will say, is that human beings can overcome their political, ethnic, social, and economic differences to achieve a common goal. The cynic will say that we merely disguise our true motives and we are basically selfish and dishonest animals. Both interpretations may be true, but we also can’t help but take away something new from such a dramatic and tangled experience. I, for one, think we could learn an awful lot from Native Americans. At least they have a deep reverence for the other organisms they share their land (and water) with, even if they do hunt them. I’m not altogether sure our supposedly civilized, tech-driven urban society has a reverence for other human beings, let alone wildlife. I do hope I’m wrong.
The bottom line is that I would recommend the film. There is precious little family fare on the big screen these days that has any substance at all, and this movie should pleasantly exceed your expectations. I give it “two flukes’ up.”