Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey Whales


BIG MIRACLE

I have vague memories of the events surrounding Big Miracle, based on the true story of the international rescue efforts to save three whales (male, female, infant male) from being trapped in the Alaskan ice.

Side note: how curious that so much time, energy, effort, and money would be spent to save three giant sea-going mammals, but saving say...people in Aleppo is considered a waste of time, energy, effort, and money.  It brings back one of the best lines from Escape From Planet of the Apes (Man might kill his brother, but he could never kill his dog).  Yet I digress.

Big Miracle aims to be a cute, sweet film, and for the most part it succeeds (more on the one aspect that makes me hesitate on recommending it for small children later), and if it aimed to be inoffensive, Big Miracle on the whole did its job.

Point Barrow, Alaska, 1988.  While the Lower 48 are concerned with the upcoming Presidential election, Alaskan roving reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is sending fluff pieces about the most northern American city (case in point, a feature about Barrows' only Mexican restaurant, which, given my own Mexican heritage, intrigues me as to how good the enchiladas are at Amigos).  His little buddy, Inuit child Nathan (Ahmagoak Sweeney) (who also narrates the story), convinces him to check out his cousin's cool snowriding skills.  While there, Adam comes across a strange and sad site: a trio of grey whales trapped under a the ice with only a small patch from which to draw breath.

Adam, no fool, sends this tender story about their impending death down to Anchorage, and soon this story is picked up by the networks (NBC's Tom Brokaw or ABC's Peter Jennings, we're told, is a sucker for whales).  The publicity draws the attention of Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), who happens to be Adam's ex-girlfriend.  She's leading the (lonely) charge against Big Oil, headed by J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who has just received the drilling rights to more pristine Alaskan territory.

Soon, everyone rushes up to Point Barrow to save the whales (side note: one wonders why they just didn't send the Starship Enterprise to do it).  Included in this mad Whale Rush is blonde reporter Jill Jerald (Kristen Bell), all wanting to cover the story.  Of course, the various agendas of all those involved in any way get their moments in the Artic sun: Adam wants to use this to launch himself into network (and he also has a crush on Jill), Rachel wants desperately to save one of the myriad of man's victims, McGraw wants to polish his environmental reputation, the Inuit community wants to help preserve their heritage from the fast-encroaching white man (in particular, Nathan's grandfather wants to show Nathan the importance of not abandoning the old ways especially since Nathan's adopted Adam as a father figure). 

The publicity and public cry to save the whales (damn the Syrians, says the American now...let their children die, so long as Bamm-Bamm gets to live) pushes the government into action, both on the state level by getting the National Guard and the the federal by getting President Reagan to call Colonel Scott Boyer (Delmont Mulroney), head of the Operation.  It is all for naught, as tragedy upon disaster strikes the efforts.  It takes now international help, via a Soviet (look it up in history books to tell you what a 'Soviet' is) icebreaker to help free the whales.

We end Big Miracle with a recap of the participants lives post-events, including a cameo by a young sports reporter named Sarah Heath...soon to take on her husband Todd Palin's last name.

I can't fault director Ken Kwapis for making a story that is aimed at the heartstrings.  After all, who doesn't like whales?  Granted, I don't recall much of the actual events from 1988 so I can't say that co-screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler took great liberties from either the facts or Thomas Rose's Freeing the Whales on which Big Miracle was adapted. 

What I see in Big Miracle was a film that was going to be as inoffensive as possible while driving up the various times the whales Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm (the infant whale being a boy).  Every time something comes close to help the whales, something else comes along to stop their rescue.  Likewise, something that comes close to killing them is stopped at the very last moment.

Here is where I'm going to pause and warn parents of very small children that, despite its best intentions, Big Miracle may not be good for kids under maybe age ten.  SPOILER ALERT: Bamm-Bamm doesn't make it.  Knowing that the baby of the family doesn't make it out alive may be a bit traumatic for small children, not only depressing them but maybe even frightening them into thinking that their own family might lose them to death. 

When I came across this scene, I became concerned over the idea that children, who may not have come across death, may find the death of a cute infant whale a bit too much to handle.  That might be my one caveat involving Big Miracle if it is aimed at a family market, and I would advise parents to consider whether watching a movie where the death of a child character is a part of the plot is appropriate for their own children.

In terms of film, I think Big Miracle hit on a wide variety of themes: environmental, the manipulativeness of the media to gin up emotions, the struggle between various interests who help the whales for their own interests, and then throw in a few other cliches.  For example, there has to be a love triangle of sorts between Adam, Jill, and Rachel which is never part of the overall story but appears to be there and that doesn't go far (anyone who doesn't realize who Adam will choose hasn't seen many movies).

The relationship between Nathan and Adam is another subplot that is touched on but just covered on the surface (no pun intended).  The struggle between Adam and Nathan's grandfather Malik over what Nathan will decide (to move away from his Inuit heritage or discover the importance of maintaining his culture) could be a film in and of itself, but the whales took up that space.

As I look on Big Miracle, I can't say it's a terrible movie.  In fact, it has a good amount of intelligence to it.  Certainly, it takes a great deal of honesty to portray the environmentalist Rachel as a bossy, annoying person who is remarkably smug over her moral superiority over everyone who dares disagree with her.  It goes against the grain to show the crusader for Mother Earth as a whiny self-righteous know-it-all (at one point, she is dismissive of Inuit culture that sees whale hunting as vital to their heritage and survival...the arrogance of the white outsider to enlighten them is both laughable and cringe-inducing), but I give Barrymore credit that while Rachel does come off as a nut, she at least isn't evil.

Same goes for Mulroney (whom I'm beginning to think deserves to be in more movies).  His Colonel Boyer starts off as a no-nonsense military type, but he over the film shows that his gruffness is more about being professional than being heartless.  He has no interest in the whales, but he doesn't want them dead.  He sees this as a mission he has to undertake, and his own views on the subject are at the end irrelevant.

If anything can be said against Big Miracle, it might be that the various subplots don't mesh as well as they could, but that's not a big hurdle to overcome.

In the great scheme of things, Big Miracle wants to be a cute, endearing family film, and minus the end of Bamm-Bamm, I think children and their parents can watch this and enjoy it.  It's not a great film, but Big Miracle knows what it is and handles itself well.

Whale, there you have it... 

DECISION: B-  

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