Last fall we saw the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a terrific thriller that took in a single event (a global pandemic) from the points of view of a wide array of characters affected by it. The cuddlier and well-intentioned Big Miracle tries to do pretty much the same thing, only it has a great deal less talent behind it. While watching this environmental drama, I kept imagining the better version of it that Soderbergh or any number of other filmmakers would have made.
The film is based on Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales, an account of the real-life 1988 events surrounding Operation Breakthrough, though most of the names are changed. It begins one late summer day in the northern Alaskan town of Barrow, when Anchorage-based TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) discovers that an early freeze has trapped three California grey whales under ice off the coast, seemingly doomed to drown without access to open water. His reporting of the story draws a huge crowd of rescuers and media types to Barrow, one of the first of whom is Rachel (Drew Barrymore), Adam’s ex-girlfriend and a Greenpeace activist who’s willing to shift the ice caps herself for the whales. As more and more people try to break the ice to save the unfortunate cetaceans, we follow their perspectives: an oil baron (Ted Danson) looking to rehabilitate his crappy environmental record, an L.A. reporter (Kristen Bell) yearning to have her male colleagues take her seriously, two Minnesota brothers (Rob Riggle and James LeGros) spotting a chance to promote their newly invented de-icing machine, a National Guard colonel (Dermot Mulroney) eyeing the logistical challenges of operating in freezing temperatures, a White House staffer (Vinessa Shaw) trying to protect the outgoing President Reagan’s image, a Soviet icebreaking ship’s captain (Mark Ivanir) whose vessel is called in for help, and still others besides.
The ambition and scope of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script are admirable, but the material needs a director willing to get down to brass tacks and immerse us in the details of life in this remote place and the motley crew of outsiders who suddenly invade it. A more intellectually curious filmmaker might have spun some lessons for us about the workings of mass media by looking at how they handled a story like this in a pre-internet age. Or, that filmmaker could have situated this story within the history of the environmental movement and explained how the incident shifted human attitudes toward whales.