By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 2, 2012 at 1:03PM
In the new true-life eco-adventure "Big Miracle," three gray whales are trapped under a large sheet of ice near Barrow, Alaska (the same town the vampires took over in "30 Days of Night"), drawing nationwide media attention and the political interest of then-president Ronald Reagan, who sees it as a PR coup that could land his Vice President George Bush in the White House. Various groups (Greenpeace, an oil magnate, the indigenous people) seize upon the crisis as an opportunity to push their various agendas, with a single goal in mind: freeing the whales. With so much riding on the situation for so many people, then, it's strange that "Big Miracle" is placid and free of drama, tension, or any kind of stakes. It's so good-natured, its heart so large, that it just merrily swims along; you're never once worried that anything will go wrong.
The movie opens with Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a reporter from Anchorage doing a series of stories from Barrow. He stumbles upon the news of the three trapped gray whales by accident, but the report is soon picked up by an affiliate station and the clip gains traction. (Since the event takes place in 1988, it is pre-"viral video.") Soon Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), an outspoken animal rights advocate and member of Greenpeace (she's also Carlson's ex-girlfriend), gets wind of the story, and starts to press the governor (Stephen Root) and a local oil magnate (Ted Danson) to help in the rescue operation. From this initial crisis spirals a series of subplots, including Carlson falling for a young news anchor (Kristen Bell); a member of Reagan's White House (Vinessa Shaw) working with a marine pilot (Dermot Mulroney) to use a hover barge to break through the ice that's keeping the whales from getting to the ocean; a pair of Minnesota inventors (Rob Riggle and James LeGros) who bring a homemade de-icing machine to help keep the air holes open; and, most interestingly, the political machinations behind getting a Soviet ship to help in the rescue, seen as a good faith effort in the waning days of the Cold War.
It's just that, none of these smaller crises add up to much. At first Ted Danson, oozing aristocratic charm, seems like he'll be a villainous businessman we can root against, but after some prodding by his wife (a very brief appearance by Kathy Baker), he jumpstarts the effort, and it quickly goes from being a PR stunt to something he's genuinely invested in. Later in the movie, Barrymore says to Danson, "It's harder to hate you than I thought," and you want to shout, "That is part of the problem with this movie!" -- there is no villain, or really any potential conflict.
Which isn't to say that there aren't things to admire in "Big Miracle." It's handsomely directed by Ken Kwapis, a filmmaker who has done everything from "Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird" to "He's Just Not That Into You" (he uses both disciplines here, as much of the film is taken up by gooey rom-com fluff) and the story remains fairly engaging even when its lack of drama has your mind drifting. The visual effects, by Rhythm and Hues (who created the animals for "Babe"), don't overwhelm, either, offering a placid, awestruck portrait of the whales that emphasizes their real-world physiology instead of arty embellishment. And the tone of the movie, which is overlong at 123 minutes, never tips over into saccharine sentiment, thanks largely to its ace supporting cast (Tim Blake Nelson is present as an arctic wildlife expert and Shea Whigham, from "Take Shelter," makes a memorable appearance as a helicopter pilot) and its period setting, with Kwapis making the brilliant decision to frequently cut to real life footage of the crisis and the accompanying television coverage.
One of the truly admirable things about "Big Miracle," too, is how fearlessly political it is. There are direct condemnations on the Reagan administration's deplorable environmental record (and its emphasis on economic growth and deregulation as a smokescreen), which will surely go over the heads of most of the little kids that will line up to see "that whale movie," but adds some appreciable color to the story. While it's not ever fully engaged with the Cold War elements (like many of the other subplots of the movie), these add a further element of historical dimension. The fact that you can say that "Big Miracle" is more politically barbed than the Oscar-nominated Margaret Thatcher biopic "The Iron Lady" is really something.
But ultimately "Big Miracle" doesn't add up to much. The pace of the thing can be conservatively called glacial. And the human stories that surround the whales' plight never make much of an impact. "Big Miracle" is fine for what it is, a sort of snowy companion piece to last year's sunnier real-life marine yarn "Dolphin Tale," and it won't have you rolling your eyes like you might imagine. Even though it doesn't really indulge in the multiple sides of debate about the whales, it at least hints at them, which is probably more than most movies on the subject would bother to do. And when was the last time you saw a clap-at-the-end kids' movie with a Joey Buttafuoco joke? "Big Miracle" could have done with a little more oomph (and a little less weepy Barrymore), but it's still a whale of a tale worth watching. [B-]