In Big Miracle, a big ol’ mess of a fact-based weeper that welcomes the whale puns (pass the harpoons!), the only things that ring somewhat true are the ulterior motives scattered among the characters, each of whom has something to gain from helping a trio of gray whales trapped beneath the ice in Middle of Nowhere, Alaska. An aspiring Anchorage journalist (John Krasinski) hopes spreading word of the story will get big networks to notice him, a Colorado oilman (Ted Danson) thinks lending his Alaskan resources will make for killer PR, a fish-out-of-water reporter (Kristen Bell) hopes covering the rescue will make her career as big as her hair, Inupiat natives want to save face lest the public think they’re heartless hunters, and a Reagan staffer (Vinessa Shaw) wants to preserve the boss’s legacy while securing the future of “humanitarian” George H.W. Bush. Oh, and then there’s the kindly Greenpeace woman (Drew Barrymore) who just wants to “act like Superman and scoop those whales up,” not to mention clinch some extra funding for, as the oilman calls them, her “tree-hugger buddies.” Based on Tom Rose’s book Freeing the Whales, which chronicled 1988’s Operation Breakthrough, Big Miracle has the decency to spare you nonstop disingenuous sap, but even its nature-of-the-beast transparency starts to feel like a generic detail culled from a What a Year It Was! book.
Set in a world where “saving the whales” wasn’t yet code for the travails of bleeding-heart types, the film, directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (The Shaggy Dog), milks all the nostalgic laughs it can out of unstylish cracks from ignorant folks who don’t think animal rescue is serious business (“Are they at least killer whales, sir?” Dermot Mulroney’s military pilot asks when assessing the need for alarm). Though they offer glimmers of promise for future progress (one day Reagan’s reaction to AIDS will get the same mainstream, look-at-these-boneheads treatment), the neanderthal attitudes, like the agendas, grow as dumbly quaint as the walkman, the blue-and-yellow Visa card, the legwarmer workout video, the Gordon Gekko reference, and the TV dinners that all but scratch “We Are the ’80s” into the camera lens. And that’s nothing compared to the constant, likely unprecedented raping of archival news footage, which bests the cast of comedians as the movie’s aggressive sincerity nullifier. With the tact of Captain Ahab at a PETA rally, Kwapis stacks clips of Connie Chung, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw one on top of the other, and at one point even squeezes a Reagan lookalike and an old televised Reagan press conference into the same frame. A last-minute flash of former Anchorage sportscaster Sarah Palin admittedly scores a chuckle, but the surfeit of VHS snippets works to turn this whole misled retelling into an Orca-sized joke.
Certainly not helping matters is a grossly miscast Barrymore, whose idea of character building is letting last year’s signature hairstyle of overgrown roots double as the vanity-free ’do of a frumpy 1980s pot-stirrer. Permitted by Kwanis to utter the word “vonerable” twice in the same monologue, Barrymore comes off as pea-brained as the insultingly simplified Inupiats and Russians, whose ascribed abilities to actually feel things renders them subhuman. A friend to the whales who swims with them and pets their noses, Barrymore’s character is ostensibly the one with the purest intent, yet she’s terribly unlikable, her politico-rattling verve more abrasive than cheer-worthy, and her perseverance peppered with uncharacteristic pessimism (she’s naggingly skeptical of the work of two Minnesota inventors, who, don’t cha know, aim for fame and fortune when they come to help out with their homemade de-icers). It’s rather fitting that the only truly tolerable scenes are the few that linger with the whales, presumable blends of CGI and puppetry that all the self-interested characters keep insisting are most important. Yes, there are some plot-thickening wrinkles that grab your attention, and yes, this all actually happened, but Big Miracle is primarily an exercise in how not to translate real life to film. Any goodwill it boasts is terminally suppressed, buried beneath a layer of bullshit as thick as blubber.