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New to DVD/Blu-ray: Blandly Nice “Big Miracle” Doesn’t Blow

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Truth is stranger than fiction, but not necessarily more interesting. Such is the case with some “inspired by a true story” films. Last year’s sweetly earnest “Dolphin Tale,” inspired by a real imperiled dolphin’s story, had moments of inspirational feel-goodiness. However, based on the real-life footage shown during the end credits, the story might have been more powerful as a documentary. Perhaps it’s because Hollywood studios feel the need to please the masses and just paint a fact-based story in black and white in lieu of adding even a sliver of gray complexity. “Big Miracle” puts forth a bigger effort than most, even as calculated eat-your-vegetables cinema, but honestly, it’s just a nice, soft-edged crowd-pleaser that simply does what it sets out to do.

In October of 1988, the tiny town of Barrow, Alaska became the setting for an international news story. From the beginning, Anchorage news reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) has relocated to Barrow to cover local interest pieces of the indigenous Inupiat tribespeople, particularly about the town’s popular Mexican restaurant. But after four years, Adam’s material seems to be running thin, until he and his 11-year-old Alaskan buddy Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) stumble upon a family of gray California whales trapped beneath the ice-covered Beaufort Sea. Five miles away from open water, the whales can only breathe through a small opening in the ice. Meanwhile back in Anchorage, Adam’s ex-girlfriend, Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) takes militant action against the Bristol Bay oil drillings ordered by greedy tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson). When the word about the whales in danger gets out and the governor (Stephen Root) turns his back, Rachel books it to Barrow, as does driven Los Angeles reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) and other journalists wanting in on the scoop. Some are genuinely out to protect these mammals, the Inupiat natives want to harvest them, and the U.S. military is too scared to ask for Russian help. Even President Ronald Reagan is on the side of the whales as his presidential aide, Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw), gets into contact with no-nonsense National Guard pilot Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) to provide a hover barge to break the ice. As the local story suddenly works its way up into global news, everyone (including the Soviets) tries saving those poor whales.

John Krasinski surely lights up his scenes with his boyishly hunky smile and personable enthusiasm. Drew Barrymore is also earnest and likable enough, even when her overzealousness falls into sanctimonious speeches, but because of the star’s appeal, she keeps us on her side. The fact that Adam and Rachel used to have a relationship and by the end can’t imagine their lives apart feels rather forced and beside the point. Danson’s oil tycoon could’ve been one-dimensional, but even he’s not completely bad. His wife, Ruth (a two-minute role for the underrated Kathy Baker), is an unexpected whale supporter and sneakily convinces him. In one knowing moment, the character states, “I’m not the bad guy all the time,” and in a final exchange from Rachel to McGraw, she says, “You’re not as easy to hate as I thought.” The Soviets aren’t presented as evil villains either, but in coming to Barrow’s rescue, they even make a bet with bubble gum and toast to their victory with vodka shots. Hell, even “Ronald Regan” makes a friendly call to Mikhail Gorbachev (“Hello Gorby, it’s Ronnie”). Finally, those playing Barrow residents are real Alaskan natives (not acting pros) and add some offbeat local color. Ultimately, it comes down to these whales, nicknamed Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam (why it’s not “Pebbles” is easily explained). They may not be anthropomorphized like the orca in 1993’s “Free Willy,” or given enough screen time, but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for them.

The screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler picks and chooses from Thomas Rose’s account, “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event,” but spends too much time on the human relationships that aren’t as interesting. Though the filmmakers have taken creative license with this story, this much is true: those three California whales were stuck. And of the blossoming/rekindled romances, the one between the White House staffer and National Guard pilot (though their real names were changed) really did happen. The plight of this whale family should be compelling enough that “Big Miracle” didn’t necessarily need all the other stuff, including the reporting rivalry between Jill and a fellow pompous reporter (John Michael Higgins). Even two Minnesota entrepreneurs (Rob Riggle, James LeGros), who invented de-icing machines, show up like comic bumpkins from “Fargo.” One exception: young Nathan’s initial conflict with his family’s culture and relationship with his grandfather (John Pingayeck) is warmly welcome.

Director Ken Kwapis (2009’s “He’s Just Not That Into You”) buoyantly balances this traffic-jam of threads, and what his writers do get right is making the whale rescue not only about doing humanitarian good but for cynical PR moves and self-gain. Of course, we know which side will really win out. At the same time, “Big Miracle” also works as a fun time-capsule to the ’80s, referencing to Walkmans, Guns N’ Roses, and Betamax cameras. In news-reel footage, you should be able to spot Connie Chung, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings. As an amusing bonus, keep your eyes peeled for Alaskan native Sarah Palin in her big-haired, sportscasting years.

This whale tale means well and makes you feel good, but also never pummels us with preachy condescension nor feels too cheesed up with sentimentality. It’s a miracle how much of “Big Miracle” will ultimately win you over because it’s still one of those Hollywood-manufactured films that didn’t need to push its “inspired by a true story” tag. Yes, there are clips of the real-life people involved in the ending credits, but for the Flintstones-named whales and the capable ensemble, the big-screen treatment does its best to endear.

107 min., rated PG.
Grade: B –