It’s no secret that one of The Vacation Gals’ travel passions is a dolphin and whale watching cruise. From seeing orcas breech in Alaska, to fin whales and dolphins surfacing along the coast of California, to humpback whales seemingly showing off for whale watch cruises in Hawaii, it’s clear that a whale watching tour enhances a coastal vacation. When a press invitation for a new movie about whales called Big Miracle came along, it was one of the fastest RSVPs I’ve sent in recent years.
Big Miracle tells the true story about California gray whales trapped in ice in Northern Alaska in the 1980’s. A Greenpeace activist and a local on-camera newsman worked together to get the story, and the whales, out. While I only have the vaguest of memories of the actual event, an observer wrote a book, Freeing the Whales, on which this movie is based.
Now, some of story in Big Miracle is fictionalized for dramatic storytelling purposes, but this much is true: Three California gray whales were stuck off the coast of Barrow, Alaska in 1988, prevented by ice from their annual migration south. From one on-camera report, the story rippled wider and wider until national correspondents from news headquarters in NYC were sent to freezing, comparatively barren Barrow to cover the story themselves. There are some amusing scenes about the culture clashes that occurred, in Big Miracle, that help set the light tone of the movie. I enjoyed the humor inherent in those scenes.
Even the office of President Ronald Reagan got involved, and when the federal government’s humanitarian effort (or should it be, “marine mammalian effort?) was unsuccessful, a Russian icebreaker was used to free the whales. Back in the 1980’s, during the Cold War, this was no easy feat. Saving the endangered California gray whales became an international affair, which is fitting, since animals don’t exactly recognize national borders.
Big Miracle‘s “bad guy” is an oil tycoon interested in drilling in Bristol Bay. But keep in mind, this is a children’s movie. Even the bad guy isn’t too bad! Ted Danson, who portrays the Texas oil man J.W. McGraw, clashes with Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, but eventually becomes as committed to saving the whales as she was. During the press junket I attended last week, Ted Danson talked about how his own environmentalism helped him fill out the character, since his ecological-mindedness has led him to meet several men on the other side of the table, so to speak. Knowing and liking them as people, despite having vastly different views regarding the importance of protecting endangered species, led him to create the character as less evil-guy-twirling-his-moustache, and more well-rounded. There’s an amusing scene in which his wife (portrayed by Kathy Baker, an underused actress if there ever was one) subtly convinces him to help save the whales in Alaska, from their home in Texas. It boiled down to good public relations, and as Ted Danson told us, “people had to act within their own self-interests to connect for the right thing.”
Big Miracle isn’t all humor and light, though. There are some serious moments (none too upsetting for children). Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist character, Rachel Kramer, represents the true emotional core of the movie. She’s seen whales in Alaska up close, and understands the true power and beauty of the animals. Her character is one of the few that’s not an amalgam of several real people. Rachel is based on activist Cindy Lowry. Drew Barrymore talked with us about getting to know Cindy very well, and how much respect she has for the environmental activist. “Cindy Lowry is a true activist,” she said, “she’s funny, she’s real and she’s tough.”
Kristen Bell portrays a television news reporter in Big Miracle; her character is a comedic one, aspiring to succeed in what was then a man’s world, yet intensely worried about her image. She told us about filming in Anchorage when it was around zero to 15 degrees out (as much as possible, Big Miracle was filmed in Alaska). This was quite a switch from her previous film locations, which include Hawaii and Bali! As a travel writer, I was excited to hear about all the disparate places she’s been, however, Kristen Bell describes herself as more of a homebody at heart. It seems traveling for work is a different experience than traveling for the sake of discovery, or simply for a fun vacation.
There are some other important characters in Big Miracle — Dermot Mulroney plays Colonel Scott Boyer, the Alaska National Guardsman who coordinated efforts to deliver an icebreaker to Barrow, and Vinessa Shaw plays White House staffer Kelly Meyers: these were two real people (Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger) who met, fell in love and got married as a result of the California gray whale rescue in Alaska. But it’s the casting of Alaskan natives — not professional actors — to portray the indigenous Inupiats of Barrow, Alaska, that truly adds a sense of reality to this movie about the politics and environmental aspects of saving the whales. The Inupiats, northern Alaska natives, are portrayed truly and without condescension. Several key scenes in the movie are seen through the eyes of an 11-year old Inupiat boy, who feels conflicted between the traditional whaling culture of his family, and the modern world encroaching around him.
Big Miracle is a sweet movie. It can serve as a realistic introduction to the importance of protecting endangered animals, no matter how large, as well as a well-rounded look at the conflicts future environmentalists can expect to encounter. The film hits all the right notes for children — even young kids — whose parents are looking for a wholesome family film. It’s my hope that today, different countries could still come together to help save endangered species, and make the world a better place.
Universal Studios treated me to the screening and subsequent press junket day in Santa Monica. However, the views expressed are (as always!) my own.