Based on a true account of international attempts to free a family of whales trapped in Alaskan ice in 1988, Big Miracle might look like a hopelessly bland, Animal Planet-ready family film in the Dolphin Tale mode, but under its crowd-pleasing exterior lies an undercurrent of bracing cynicism. Nearly all of the characters are motivated by a combination of pragmatism, ambition, and self-interest. For ambitious reporters John Krasinski and Kristen Bell, the whale tale is their ticket up the professional food chain. For oil magnate Ted Danson, joining forces with the free-the-whales brigade serves as an opportunity to score good publicity for a much-maligned corporation. The Reagan administration, meanwhile, joins the unlikely alliance to free the whales out of a desire to redeem its atrocious environmental record, as Reagan prepares to hand over the reins to George H.W. Bush. People generally do the right thing in Big Miracle, but not for the purest reasons.
Krasinski, who worked extensively with director Ken Kwapis on The Office, stars as a hungry young newshound who stumbles upon the story of a lifetime when he finds three whales trapped in a thick, potentially deadly wall of ice that blocks their path to open water. When Tom Brokaw uses Krasinski’s report to fill out the nightly national news, a sleepy local story becomes a big, complicated international development, especially once the Soviets and a Greenpeace activist played by Drew Barrymore enter the fray.
Of all the players angling for advantage, Barrymore’s tree-hugger is the one most motivated by idealism. It’s a testament to the film’s surprising, welcome ambiguity that she’s also easily its most insufferable character, a strident, humorless scold given to sermonizing. Kwapis fills small roles with great character actors like Stephen Root, Andrew Daly, Kathy Baker, Tim Blake Nelson, John Michael Higgins, Rob Riggle, and James LeGros, all skilled at making a lot out of a little. Big Miracle isn’t quite an Arctic Ace In The Hole—Billy Wilder’s pitch-black morality tale about the journalistic circus that ensues when a man becomes trapped in a cave—but it echoes Wilder’s misanthropic classic enough to be far better and far more adult than it really has any right to be.