The title isn't an exaggeration. It was something of a Big Miracle, the way the plight of a family of gray whales, stranded under the Alaska ice, captivated the country and forced oilmen and environmentalists, natives and Cold War foes to team up back in the waning days of the Reagan administration.
And it's no small miracle that the story of that nearly forgotten moment makes for a delightful family movie. Political cynicism, media opportunism, dogmatic native "tradition," corporate greed and environmentalists' stubbornness are each dashed against this sunny confection by Ken Kwapis (License to Wed).
John Krasinski is a small-time TV reporter, Adam, whose "Adam Around Alaska" stories aren't the ticket to the big time he wants. Then he stumbles across three whales — parents and a baby — clinging to an air hole in the ice outside Barrow, Alaska. They're miles from open ocean, too far to hold their breath. They won't last more than a day or two, the state wildlife biologist (Tim Blake Nelson) and Inupiat tribal elder (John Pingayak) tell him. Adam's "tragedy unfolding here in Barrow" story gets picked up by the network because, as one unnamed wag cracks, "Brokaw's a sucker for whale stories."
Soon every network is on the story. Alaskan Greenpeace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore) shrieks, "These whales are in trouble!" The tribal whaling council has to be shown how bad "harvesting" the whales will look to the world. Mr. Big Oilman (Ted Danson) has to be conned into seeing the PR value in letting "some hippies use my (icebreaker) barge to save some whales."
The timber-cutting/oil-drilling Greenpeace-hating governor (Stephen Root) is forced to call in the National Guard. The officious chopper pilot (Dermot Mulroney) has to be convinced this "mission" is worthy of his men. ("Are they at least killer whales?")
And the White House administration that nobody would have called "green" gets on board for a little legacy-polishing.
It's a slight film of simple, obvious charms. But screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler get the little things right. Every character has a function. Barrymore and Danson present the "environment" versus "jobs" debate. Nelson is the "explainer," delivering little doses of science. Pingayak passes on native customs and native appreciation for an animal his people depended on for millennia. Kristen Bell represents the shallow "big time" in TV news. Adam is the mediator among these disparate folk. And Mulroney's no-nonsense turn as the National Guard member reminds us of the stakes, animal and human, in a climate this hostile.
The would-be villains are given a human side, and the supposedly righteous — the natives and environmentalists — have unpleasant touches. Barrymore's Rachel is shrill and dismissive, Danson's oilman has a soft streak.
Yes, there are plenty of Hollywood touches. But much of this story is true. Stay through the closing credits (clips of the real people and real chronology) for proof. The "true story" appeal, given a light spin, make this a charming feel-good movie the whole family can enjoy.