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Reaching out

Movies | Big Miracle offers more than typical environmentalist fare

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

After the first 10 minutes of Big Miracle (rated PG for frequent, mild profanity), a feel-good family film about a trio of whales trapped under the ice in Alaska, the eyes of viewers of a conservative persuasion will likely begin to roll. "Here we go again," they'll think, "evil oil companies and the Republican politicians who love them want to kill all the whales and have to be stopped by pure-hearted environmentalists." And they won't be wrong. That is, in fairly exaggerated fashion, how the movie opens.

But if they stay in their seats till the 60-minute mark, they may notice a somewhat miraculous shift begins to occur. It isn't that Greenpeace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore) ever behaves as anything less than a holy crusader for Mother Nature. But she does start to question whether her perspective on the issues might be a bit limited. She wonders if perhaps, just perhaps, those right-wing villains she's been railing about all her adult life aren't quite so villainous as she imagined.

The biggest villain in the semi-true story that occurred in 1988 is J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), CEO of a major oil company bidding for rights to drill in Alaska. From the early scenes we see that Rachel and J.W. have a long, adversarial history, with both living up to every stereotype the audience would expect of them. But when Rachel's ex-boyfriend, TV news reporter Adam (John Krasinski), stumbles onto the story of an imperiled grey whale family he nicknames Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm, the two combatants suddenly find themselves on the same side.

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As shown in delightful archival news footage, the whales capture the hearts of America, leading to hordes of reporters descending on Point Barrow, a tiny Arctic town populated mostly by native Inuits. Soon, national news anchors like Connie Chung, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings are making nightly reports on their plight, and both Rachel and J.W. see a chance to use the publicity to their advantage. Rachel leans on the Reagan administration to get first the National Guard and then the Soviets to lend a hand; J.W. employs his company's equipment to break down both ice and his negative corporate image. As the action rolls on, so does the mostly friendly ideological banter.

Going by dialogue alone, it may still seem as if director Ken Kwapis wants the audience to side more with the environmentalists than the corporate and political opportunists. But several subplots undercut the stray ham-fisted liberal line (one cringe-inducing scene where Reagan picks up the phone and greets the leader of the Soviet Union with, "Gorby? It's Ronnie," notwithstanding).

When she makes no attempt to understand or make allowances for the Inuit hunting culture, Rachel betrays an off-putting sense of superiority. Nor is she shown in a particularly positive light when a cynical big city reporter (Kristen Bell) points out how ridiculous it is for people to get more upset about whales dying than other humans. Later, a couple of small-time capitalists from Minnesota donate their de-icing technology, thus demonstrating the power of the free market to work for the collective good.

On the other hand, it could simply be that while Barrymore's performance leans toward the histrionic, Danson lights up every scene he's in. Though a well-known Hollywood liberal, Danson (like Alec Baldwin on NBC's 30 Rock) plays a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with such zest and verve, you get the feeling some part of him must believe the guys on the other side of the aisle are having more fun. At least in Big Miracle people stop haranguing others across the aisle and start working together.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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