Can a relationship expert also be an environmentalist? The answer is yes, if he’s director/writer Ken Kwapis, who has done an unlikely hopscotch jump from the chuckle-inducing love story “He’s Just Not That Into You” in 2009, to an outright saving-the-whales vehicle three years later. “Big Miracle” is the title, and if you’re thinking this sounds blatantly PG — you’re right. But wait, don’t get up and leave just yet. “Big Miracle” delivers more than it lets on, and in the most unexpected ways. For one thing, the relationship thing gets as much screen time as the whale thing and an ex-couple almost come together again, pull skittishly apart, tentatively hold hands and ponder over their feelings, while saving whales. Such multi-tasking just could not happen in a straightforward endangered-cetacean movie.
“Big Miracle” is based on true events that happened in 1988 — three whales were trapped under the ice on the Alasakan coastline, five miles from the ocean. They could breathe through a small opening on the ice but it was clear the surface would freeze over in a couple of days and the whales — nicknamed Wilma, Fred and Bam-Bam (no Pebbles) — would drown. They needed help from decent human beings and “Big Miracle” is the story of how these human beings came together in a common cause for … decency.
Not that they were all real nice people to begin with. Kwapis works from a script (written by a team of three) designed to be a little different from the usual run of let’s-save-nature stories to show how people are usually icky monsters of selfishness, but given a chance (or several), they can change course and become a little wonderful — emphasis “on a little.” Kwapis manages to render his characters with more nuance than we’re used to seeing on a PG rating, which means parents with children in tow may find it a much pleasanter hour and a half than they bargained for.
Also instructive. “Big Miracle” is set in the pre-Internet days of the late 1980s — when to get anything done, people had to actually go out, talk to one other, mobilize their efforts and move their butts. If the same problem had happened today, those whales could probably have been saved in five hours or less — the combined forces of TV, Facebook and Twitter coming to the rescue — and at the end of the day, photos of people celebrating with beers would be up from one end of the Net to the other with the rescued whales presented with Flintstones T-shirts that read: “I was trapped by a ceiling of thick, solid ice and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
In 1988 though, things moved a lot slower, especially in Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost town in U.S. territory and a semi-strategic point for the Soviets during the Cold War. Yes, this was before the Berlin Wall came down and U.S.-Soviet relations were uh, on ice. Consequently the State of Alaska and the U.S. Coast Guard had that much less freedom with which to stage a large-scale marine activity and ultimately had to cooperate with the Russians. All this required more time, commitment and people skills than what we’re currently used to expecting and dispensing.
Kwapis has made sure of the film’s star wattage and he combines such nostalgic brand names as Ted Danson with Drew Barrymore, adding the here-and-now John Krasinski. As an additional bonus, there’s a cameo appearance from Sarah Palin in her sportscaster days via archival news footage, and even she chips in to help.
Much to the film’s credit, most of the characters with the exception of Barrymore’s animal-rights activist Rachel Kramer, makes no secret of their true feelings. If they’re going to help, there had better be something in it for them. Remember when the ’80s was described as the me-decade and there was a certain amount of finger wagging over such self-absorption? It all seems rather innocent and harmless now — the “me” has been replaced by the “i” of i-gadgets, Internet and so on — and though saving whales may take less time, there’s generally a whole lot less to celebrate.