Drew Barrymore as a Greenpeace activist better at making friends with whales than getting along with human beings in the movie based on the real story of a trio of whales trapped in the ice off the coast of Alaska in 1988, Big Miracle.
One of the very good things about Big Miracle---and there are several---is that Drew Barrymore’s character, Rachel Kramer, a passionate Greenpeace activist determined to save a family of whales trapped in the ice off the coast of Alaska, is irritating and obnoxious. Adorably irritating and obnoxious but still irritating and obnoxious.
Rachel, whom we first meet wielding a bullhorn and disrupting an auction of oil drilling rights by the, as you may remember, not environmentally conscientious Reagan Administration’s Department of Interior, is committed, energetic, and persistent. She’s a self-righteous scold convinced that everyone she argues needs her to explain to them not just how they’re on the wrong side of the issue but how they’re on the wrong side morally as well.
When after she outmaneuvers him on the PR front the governor shakes his head and sighs, “I hate her so much,” we feel for him.
And she doesn’t change. At best she learns she needs to change.
It’s 1988, and three gray whales have somehow wandered off course in their annual migration from their far northern summer feeding grounds above the Arctic Circle to the warm waters off California and Mexico where their species winters. The ice has closed in around them and they have only a small opening through which they take turns popping up to breathe. The hole is inexorably freezing over and when it does the whales will drown. When she hears about the whales, Rachel packs her bags and rushes up to the town of Barrow, the town closest to where the whales are trapped, intent on saving the whales and certain that she is the only one who cares enough to do it.
She may have another motive. She gets the news off the television in a story reported by the first journalist on the scene, her ex-boyfriend, Adam Carlson (played with his dependable affability by John Krasinski), and from the look that passes across her face it might be that her plan is that after getting the whales out of the ice she’s going to push Adam in.
I’d better stop this review right here to tell you Big Miracle is not a romantic comedy. It’s not a chick flick. It’s a family movie in the best sense of the term. But it’s something else as well. Rachel’s and Adam’s places in the story aren’t defined by their romance but by the individual jobs each one has to do to help rescue the whales. Big Miracle is about a community effort to do a small but transcendent act of decency and the group of oddballs who come together to form that little community. Barrymore and Krasinski are the stars and Rachel and Adam are the main characters, but they’re the main characters the way Maggie and Joel were the main characters on Northern Exposure.
Big Miracle is like Northern Exposure in more ways than that its being set in a small town in Alaska populated by eccentrics. In any given episode of Northern Exposure the story’s focus would shift away from Joel and Maggie to any and all of the other regular and semi-regular characters who’d be working their way through subplots of their own only thematically related to what was going on with Joel and Maggie. And in any given scene of Big Miracle the focus shifts away from Rachel and Adam to the other main and important supporting characters working their way through their own part of the story arc.
In fact, just as often happened with Maggie and Joel on Northern Exposure, Rachel and Adam are dropped from the story for scenes at a time only to reappear, again like Joel and Maggie, apart from each other, working their way through problems that have nothing to do with each other or the question of whether or not they’ll get back together.
On television and in the movies, a whole school of quirky ensemble dramas and comedies about little communities of eccentrics developed after Northern Exposure. (Someday I may write a post about the influence of Cicely on Deadwood.) The creators of Northern Exposure didn’t invent it. Preston Sturges got there way ahead of them. But they repopularized it and did it as well or better than it had been done before or has been done since, and I write that not just as a Deadwood fan but as someone whose favorite movie from the 1980s might just be Local Hero.
In these movies and TV shows, characters are defined by their roles within their community of eccentrics but they also define themselves against the community, and that’s how it is here.
In Big Miracle, every character is a “character” but not just in the sense of being a weirdo, oddball, eccentric, or otherwise afflicted with a screenwriter’s idea of colorfulness. They are characters in having characters of their own, in being themselves, in not being the person you expect them or need them to be. And they have stories of their own apart from their role in the story we happen to be watching and they tell us a little bit of that other story whenever they open their mouths, like the waitress at the northernmost Mexican restaurant in North America who tells her story in her one single line of dialog. She’s Eskimo---Inupiat---like most of the residents of Barrow, but her brown skin, black hair, and sharp Indian cheekbones set off against the place where she works cause an out-of-towner who knows better but can’t help himself to ask, “Are you Mexican?”
“Only at work,” she says.
Everyone has their story. Everyone has their rhymes and their reasons. Nobody’s a villain, at least not in their own eyes, and we get to see them through their own eyes. Most people try to do the right thing, it’s just a rare occasion when we’re put into a circumstance where the right thing is clear and everybody sees what it is and agrees what to do about it.
So here are some of the other characters whose stories we’re told along with Rachel and Adam’s:
There’s an oil company executive named McGraw and played by Ted Danson with persuasive mixtures of charm and false charm, smarminess and sincerity, true jollity and malicious glee, and greed, ambition, opportunism, and a sense of limits to all three that allows him to be more of a decent guy than an all around bastard. He is a bastard, but only some of the time and incidentally. McGraw doesn’t really care about the whales one way or another but he puts his company’s resources behind the rescue, and joins in himself, because he hope the good PR will help him win drilling rights within the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. (It’s disamaying to be reminded how long and how relentlessly the oil industry has been pushing to drill, baby, drill up there.) The surprise to him is that once he starts to help his talents and his brains and his energies are engaged and whenever that happens to him he goes all in. He starts to see saving the whales as a personal responsibility because that’s how he feels about any work he undertakes. He’s responsible for seeing it’s done right and done well because he has the skill and the knowledge to get it done right and well.
There’s an official from the Reagan White House who sees the whales’ plight as an opportunity to make up for something that has been a personal disappointment to her, Reagan’s terrible record on the environment and there’s a National Guard helicopter pilot who’s given the dangerous job, thanks to that official’s efforts, of towing an ice breaking barge to the where the whales are trapped. Their two stories combine in the other romantic subplot of Big Miracle.
There’s an ambitious young TV journalist from Los Angeles (a coolly blonde Kristen Bell deftly locating her character at the midway point in her transition from idealistic journalism school grad to seasoned and cynical pro) who’s sent to cover the story to get her out of the way of her station’s star reporter who blossoms as a reporter on camera and then finds herself competing with that star reporter who arrives hoping to take over what she’s helped turn into a major news story.
There’s Nathan, a savvy twelve year old Inupiat, who is feeling the pull of the of the greater and wider---and whiter---world outside Barrow. He already knows his future isn’t in Barrow but he can’t articulate to himself his dilemma: how to be true to himself and pursue his own dreams while honoring his family and his people. And there’s his grandfather Malik, one of the leaders in the attempt to rescue the whales, who is trying to figure out how to let Nathan go and what to give him to take with him, emotionally and spiritually, and how to make him see it’s worth taking with him, how to teach him he’ll be leaving something precious behind without burdening him with guilt about leaving it.
There are the captain and first mate of the Soviet Navy ice breaker that sets off to come help with the rescue and there are a pair of small businessmen from Minnesota who rush up to Alaska with a de-icing device they’ve invented to keep holes open for ice fishing.
And there are scientists, oil men, politicians, half the population of Barrow, and, briefly, Ronald Reagan.
Oh, and the three whales.
Another very good thing about Big Miracle is that director Ken Kwapis doesn’t overdo it with the whales or make any attempt to anthromorphize them. Things get a bit sloppy and sentimental in a few scenes, but come on. They’re whales. They might die. But mainly Kwapis allows them the same dignity to be themselves he allows his human characters and the whales are what whales are, something wonderfully other, aliens from another world we have only begun dimly to understand. Our rooting interest in their being saved is in their being alive.
Rachel has spunk and when you see her spunkiness in action you understand why Lou Grant hated spunk.
She is brave and she is honest and she is remarkably pure of heart. But she is proud and tactless and pathetically unself-aware and socially inept. She says exactly what she thinks and expects that people appreciate her forthrightness even when she is in fact insulting them.
This is not a helpful way for a political activist to be.
It’s not helpful even when she’s right and in the right, like when she confronts the official from the Reagan administration with her boss’s horrendous record on the environment. All Rachel succeeds in doing is offend a potential ally and cause her to go all Morning in America in defense of what the official knows is indefensible. And it’s not helpful when Rachel lays into the tribal leaders who are already leaning towards helping to rescue the whales. Rachel is a liberal, of course, but she’s not much of a poster girl for liberalism. She gives no thought to the Inupiat’s traditions and customs and economic needs. All she knows is that the Inupiat hunt whales (bowheads not grays, but as far as she’s concerned there’s no difference) and that makes them bad guys in her book and she can’t stop herself from letting them know that.
Rachel expects people to just accept that she is there to serve the cause of goodness and light and they should get out of her way and let her do what needs to be done. It doesn’t dawn on her that she might need their help to do it.
This is where her romantic past with Adam becomes thematically key.
As soon as she sees his story on TV, Rachel calls Adam and in her best accusatory tone, and without saying hello first, demands to know why he didn’t call her right away to tell her about the whales. He doesn’t bother to point out that she is no longer the first person he is expected to think of under any circumstances or that even if she was he had his job to do first. But he does remind her that when they broke up she told him never to talk to her again.
Of course she thinks he ought to have known that something like this would be an exception but also that he should have known that she hadn’t meant it anyway. She wanted him to try to talk to her again. She expected him to. She waited and waited for him to. She’s still waiting for him to and she’s mad at him, and herself, that she’s the one who had to break the silence.
But we can tell from this quick call that one of the things that broke them up was that he got tired of having to sort out what she really meant from what she said because she was carried away by her temper.
I love it when a movie doesn’t waste time on a lot of back story and trusts its audience to figure out what’s going on between and within characters. Just about everything we need to know about what went wrong between Adam and Rachel is told to us by the two colors of Drew Barrymore’s hair. We can see that for a time Rachel was as blonde as Kristin Bell’s coolly disciplined and professional TV news reporter. She has let her hair grow out and we can measure the time since they broke up by the several inches of brown roots now showing, but there’s more to it. We can be pretty sure why she’s let it grow out and make a good guess why she dyed her hair in the first place. Him.
We see how his head’s turned by the likes of Bell’s character. Rachel must have seen something like that happen before too and it caused her not very deeply submerged insecurities to breach and leap like whales. At some point she tried to turn herself into the kind of cool, professional blonde she thinks is Adam’s type, completely missing the fact that there’s no way she could ever be cool or even professional in that way. She takes everything too personally. But she’s also missed the fact that his type is her, only with the intensity dialed down a notch or two, because who would want to be with her?
Another revealing touch is the bathrobe Rachel gives Adam when they meet face to face in Barrow. She tells him it’s a belated present she didn’t give him at the time because they broke up before his birthday, but we can see three things right away. Adam suspects she’s lying because he knows she would have forgotten his birthday until the last minute, he hates the robe, and he understands why she’s giving it to him and how she came to pick it out. He knows she’d have made a dash to the store to buy something that would impress him and make him regret their breakup, picked out fifteen perfect gifts, and then, unable to make up her mind which was the most perfect, made a desperate last second decision, reaching almost instinctively for the worst possible choice, regretting it almost immediately, and then stubbornly and perversely sticking to it. And that sums up how things often went between them, Rachel doing and saying what she realized a second too late was exactly the wrong thing to do or say.
Rachel is an emotional and social klutz who’s pretty clearly assigned herself the mission of saving the whales because she’s entirely clueless about how to manage living with other people. It’s not that the case with Rachel is that she loves mankind but can’t stand people. It’s that she doesn’t understand people and the people she least understands is herself. And the thing she least understands about herself is that she needs help from others as much as she believes they need help from her. She thinks of it as her job to look out for others, for the whole world, in fact, but she is hopeless at looking after herself, and she’s too proud and stubborn to admit it.
We quickly come to suspect that the defining dynamic in Rachel and Adam’s relationship was Rachel batting away every effort Adam made to help her take care of herself.
Now, Adam is talented and ambitious, but he’s talented and ambitious in two conflicting directions.
He’s a talented and ambitious journalist. He’s looking for the break that will get him out of Alaska and into a job at a major network affiliate in the lower forty-eight and with the whales’ story he’s found that break. And when Kirsten Bell’s character, Jill, shows up to cover the story herself he’s in a position to capitalize on that break. Jill recognizes a fellow pro and she also recognizes that she needs Adam’s help. But unlike Rachel, she’s secure enough not just to accept it but to ask for it, and Adam is happy to oblige. Rachel can’t help seeing Jill as a romantic rival, the blonde princess Rachel thought she had to be to attract Adam, but a big part of Jill’s appeal for Adam is that she represents an independent life for him. She needs his help, but she doesn’t need him. And she makes it clear that although she’s willing to give him a leg up professionally she doesn’t think he needs her to succeed, he’s good enough to make it on his own. Her showing up is fortunate. They make a good team. But that doesn’t make them an inevitable couple, which is fine with both of them. They both have exciting careers ahead of them that they’re going to have to pursue on their own.
But one of the qualities that makes Adam a good journalist is that he’s interested in people and not just for their stories. He understands them, too, and he has a talent for helping them in exactly the way they need to be help and to give them that help in exactly the right dose. And as is usually the case with anyone with a talent, he’s ambitious to put that talent to work. We see this broadly in his friendship with Nathan and we see it specifically and most practically when in a scene aboard a helicopter flying at night with its doors open to let out the carbon monoxide fumes a portable generator that has to be kept running because there’s a chance it won’t re-start out on the ice and the pilot’s eye freezes shut.
The pilot reluctantly, very reluctantly, accepts Adam’s help, because of the form it has to take, but he accepts it, and the willingness to accept help is a general point of the movie.
Kurt Vonnegut liked to quote his son Mark, the pediatrician’s answer to the existential question Why are we here?
“We’re here,” Doctor Vonnegut says, “to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
All the characters rallying to save the whales want to help. But after a while it’s almost as if the whales themselves are beside the point. The point is to be help. Helping is not saving. You can’t help alone. You help along with at least one other person, the one you’re helping if no one else. Helping is admitting you can’t do it alone as much as is asking for help. You need that person’s help to help them. Implicit in being helpful is accepting help yourself. Giving and receiving help is being part of a community. It might be the definition of a community.
One by one the characters in Big Miracle join the community until only one person is left struggling alone outside it.
When Adam asks her to appear on camera and tell the folks at home why people care about whales, Rachel says, “Even though they’re big and powerful, they’re so much like us…We’re vulnerable, we get scared, we need help sometimes too.”
The question is when is Rachel going to realize she’s not talking about just the whales and what is she going to do about it if and when she does?
The blonde’s blurb: Sob. Oliver Mannion determined to take his mother to see Big Miracle when he caught her tearing up at the trailer. He wanted to see if she’d start bawling in the theater. She did. Me too.
The ads say Big Miracle was “inspired by” a true story. I took that to mean what it usually means, that the filmmakers had given themselves a license to invent. And there’s a lot of invention in Big Miracle, but it’s the characters who are invented. It’s interesting to read how closely the plot follows the real-life events.
Kwapis also does a good job of weaving actual TV news clips from the time in with his faked footage, better even than Bennett Miller did in Moneyball, in fact and I was happy to see that one of the things I thought had to be made up was real---they really did cut a path of rectangular air holes five miles long for the whales to follow to safety.
Most of the characters are inventions or composites but two have almost exact real-life counterparts, the Reagan aide and the National Guard officer who fall in love. Their real-life story is sweet but also sad.
Big Miracle, directed by Ken Kwapis, screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, John Pingayak, and Ahmaogak Sweeney. Now playing in theaters.