Review: BIG MIRACLE

Jim Tudor, Contributor
This is a film with a beat-you-over-the-head environmental message. It is being released really early in the year. It has Ted Danson in a starring role. And it is directed by Ken Kwapis, the guy who gave us "Dunston Checks In" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants". Yup, there's pretty much no reason to expect "Big Miracle" to be anything other than unwatchable, sentimentalized, heavy-handed messageering. So maybe the biggest miracle in all of this is that "Big Miracle" is a perfectly watchable film of its ilk. Despite it's unintentionally laughable trailer, it's pretty clear that the filmmakers knew what they were up against in terms of taste and reception. After all, environmentalist guilt tactics and bullying are as passé as the "save the whales" mantra that came with them in the late 1980s... All of which makes up the focus of this film.
Although the heroine of the piece is a tireless Greenpeace activist played by Drew Barrymore, that does not in fact automatically make her character's natural enemy - Ted Danson's oil drilling tycoon - the villain of the film. Not that this film is all that particularly great, but in a lesser one, the greater crisis of the piece would be pinned on this capitalist zealot - he with his gas guzzling vehicles and oil drilling priorities, how dare he. But in fact, there is no villain in "Big Miracle", which, although is ostensibly about the historic Barrow, Alaska Trapped Whale Crisis of 1988 (in which a family of gray whales was discovered trapped under the rapidly freezing nearby waters - a death sentence to the air-breathing mammals), turns out to actually be about how singularly-focused compassion is the Great Unifier of People.

But more than that, "Big Miracle" takes the position that the nature of one's initial motivation for doing good doesn't ultimately matter so much as the end result of the actions taken. So, although potshots are freely taken at the expected targets of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and soon-to-be-President Bush for their typically lax-to-antagonistic stance on environmental issues, even they somehow land on this movie's side of good, as a top White House aide (played by Vinessa Shaw) proves to be one of the trapped whales' greatest champions.

Captured surprisingly well is the 1988 Save the Whales zeitgeist, a product of an era with very little else to really worry about. For better or worse, it's hard to imagine today's world rallying this kind of cash and attention for the cause of a family of whales that is victim of a completely natural, albeit fatal occurrence - one that has no doubt claimed many a whale in ages past. (But in a sense, the fact of this film's own production and existence nullifies that point. These movies aren't cheap or easy to make, y'know.) When we think about all the problems of the world today, this one seems pretty slight. But like Ted Danson's previously uncaring oil drilling tycoon, after spending all this time caught up in the situation (watching the movie up to the end), we too want to see the whales freed. If the film was truly the cloying, ham-handed diatribe its promotional push is painting it as, then "Big Miracle's" hard-won audience unity wouldn't even be possible, as most anyone with an analytical brain would be too busy resenting the endeavor. Actually, the biggest pain in "Big Miracle" has to be that suffered by the baby whale, each time Barrymore repeatedly and inexplicably puts her hand on the gnarly open wound on it's nose. (And they say she's the compassionate one...!)

The ultimate weight and importance of this crisis (and there is very little of either) dictates that no one needs to fear finding oneself on the wrong side of history as long as he has a heart (at least in the long run). To be sure, by the end of "Big Miracle", everyone is emotionally caught up in the all-but-hopeless mess. The film dares a levelheaded interpretation of a single moment in history when conservative and liberal, capitalist and communist, news media and the people groups they routinely exploit, united. The irony is that once this considerable ice was broken (literally), the moment immediately evaporated. And the film isn't too rosy-eyed to say as much. But still, "Big Miracle" is all about broad idealism - a dangerous thing for a movie. Somehow, this one's idealism is more of a positive, if lesser, John Lennon lyric than a bad Paul McCartney one.

- Jim Tudor
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