There's a complicated, bizarre story behind the real-life events that inspired Big Miracle, in which an unlikely collection of allies-- from a Greenpeace activist to the Reagan administration-- gathered together to rescue three gray whales trapped underneath ice near Barrow, Alaska. Everyone was doing it for their own completely selfish reasons, all perfectly aware they were throwing themselves into a PR stunt, and the cynical human impulses that go into that are the kind of things the Coen Brothers might mine. Instead we've got Ken Kwapis, who crafts Big Miracle as broad and obvious as his previous films like He's Just Not That Into You, an oddball bit of history steamrolled by Hollywood gloss.
John Krasinski, once again doing a solid for his frequent The Office director Kwapis, kicks things off as an Anchorage-based news reporter about to wrap up a stint in Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska. Sick of reporting fluffy local news pieces, he happens upon the plight of the three whales trapped in the ice-- it's still a fluffy story, but one that garners a lot of national attention. Among the mobs descending upon Barrow are Krasinski's old flame, a Greenpeace activist played by Drew Barrymore, and the posh young reporter from LA (Kristen Bell) he's crushed on from afar. Before you think the story might be a simple love triangle, though, we also follow two de-icing machine makers from Minnesota (Rob Riggle and James LeGros), an oil executive getting in on the good PR (Ted Danson), a National Guardsman assigned to tow an ice-breaking barge (Dermot Mulroney), and the Reagan employee (Vinessa Shaw) who travels to Alaska to bolster her boss's environmental record.
Everyone hangs out by the gap in the ice where the whales can breathe; some of them flirt, some of them fight, a lot of them go on national TV (the movie is frequently intercut with real news footage featuring Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather), and though sad things happen, everything eventually ends on a happy note. Big Miracle follows such an earnest, fundamentally optimistic storyline that it ought to be easy to go along with its guileless heart, except that the events are so fundamentally tied to real, recent events that it's hard not to step outside and ask questions. When Soviet ice-breaking ships get involved, as an example that "Mr. Gorbachev is telling the truth about this whole Glasnost thing," Big Miracle feels less like a slice of strange history than a children's fable about how the Cold War ended thanks to these magical whales.
It's not like Big Miracle is aiming for anything much bigger than childish insights, and the movie's meager laughs probably would only appeal to kids, even though the plot takes you through a labyrinth of bureaucratic interests and the entire concept of a "media blitz." It's ultimately too naive for the tricky grown-up issues it tackles, but not smart or sweet enough to get away with it.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich