I'm going to warn you right now that this review is a total rave, as I have nothing but positive things to write about Drew Barrymore's new movie, "Big Miracle."
While I'm an unabashed and longtime fan of Ms. Barrymore, I liked the film for plenty of reasons other than her always-radiant presence. And while I'm not usually a fan of kid movies, this is one that I enjoyed thoroughly. (It's a movie most grown-ups would like with or without a child in tow, so head to a later-night screening if you want to avoid the wee ones' probable oohs, ahhs and sobs.)
"Big Miracle" tells the true tale of the 1988 rescue of three grey whales that got stranded off the coast of Alaska by early ice cover. Discovered gathered in one small, ice-free area of the otherwise frozen Arctic Sea, where they are surfacing for air, the giant whales are trapped, unable to make it out to sea and down to the coast of California, where they normally winter. A small, local story reported by a John Krasinski's character (a sweet but driven broadcast journalist) and an intrepid and vocal Greenpeace activist (played by Barrymore) begin to get attention for the whales' predicament. The story soon goes national after NBC gets wind of it. (Apparently Dan Rather was a sucker for animal stories.)
The nation listens in every night as various tactics are tried to free the whales (I was 11 in 1988 and remember this story on the news each evening, its twists and turns an emotional real-life journey for any animal-loving kid or adult). It's suspenseful and well-paced, condensing a long timeline in an untedious way, and sympathy gathers for both the whales and the people attempting to free them.
But the most remarkable thing about the story — and the one that makes it both educational for kids and a movie adults will enjoy — is how some very divergent human interests work together for the whales. From an oil-drilling good ol' Alaska boy (played to the hilt by Danson), who "volunteers" an ice-breaking barge (mostly to bolster his reputation), to one change-making official in the Reagan administration, to the National Guard, and the local people of the small town of Barrow, Alaska, everyone helps out. The most fascinating, and difficult-to-navigate POV was that of the native Inupiat people, who are best known for their fight to be allowed to hunt whales. Writers get the kudos here, as the audience sees how the tribe makes the decision to help the rescue effort instead of eating the whales, a deft piece of storytelling about native people's choices and challenges, and one we almost never see in Hollywood movies.
The whales are the sympathetic, beating heart(s) of this movie, which is all about human beings doing something for the reasons that people do: political gain, admiration and respect, or to burnish a legacy. But it's also about people putting their necks out for something they believe in, for something greater than themselves, because they think it's the right thing to do. For an animal that has been tortured and hunted to extinction, one can't help but think that the 1988 incident portrayed in "Big Miracle" is some kind of cross-species apology delivered in a language that both sides might comprehend.
Barrymore spoke after the screening I attended in New York City and compared the movie to "E.T.," a 1982 Stephen Spielburg film that Barrymore starred in as a child. "[It really] brought me back to 'E.T.,' working with something so otherworldly, but human," she said of telling the story of the whales' plight. While no real whales "acted" in the movie (they were animatronic, not computer-generated), the film was shot on location in Alaska, and most of the events actually happened. Barrymore's character, based on the real-life Greenpeace activist, Cindy Lowry, became a friend to Barrymore as she worked with her to capture her character on screen, and Barrymore seems to have learned about both the challenges and rewards of the often difficult work of standing up for Earth's creatures who cannot defend themselves in a court or advocate for themselves: "[Cindy] really did her homework, and always argued in an educated way. When you're fighting for things, it gets messy," Barrymore said.