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Uplifting ‘Big Miracle’ tells a true-life whale tale

An environmentalist (Drew Barrymore) tries save trapped trio whales “Big Miracle.”

An environmentalist (Drew Barrymore) tries to save a trapped trio of whales in “Big Miracle.”

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‘Big Miracle’ ★★★

Rachel Drew Barrymore

Adam John Krasinski

Malik John Pingayak

Col. Scott Dermot Mulroney

J.W. Ted Danson

Ruth Kathy Baker

Universal Pictures presents
a film directed by Ken Kwapis. Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated PG (for language). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: March 4, 2012 8:06AM

‘You’re not as easy to hate as I thought,” an oil man tells an environmental activist in “Big Miracle,” the heartwarming true story of a 1988 effort to rescue three Alaskan whales. It could just as well have been said by any of the more than a dozen lead characters who find themselves part of a “cockeyed coalition.” Viewing one another with suspicion, if not downright animosity, these coalition members are brought together to save a family of whales affectionately named after “The Flintstones.”

The obstacle for the whales: five miles of ice that must be cut away in sub-zero temperatures so they can return to the ocean. The bigger obstacle: the struggle for the humans to try to find a way to work together.

As “Big Miracle” follows this operation, the rescuers all want want something different. Native Inupiat whale hunters want to “harvest” (kill and eat) the whales. Environmentalists want to protect them. The U.S. military does not want to ask for help from a Soviet ice-cutting ship. An oil developer wants to improve his reputation. Two Minnesota entrepreneurs want to show off their ice-melting machine. Politicians want to look good or look innocent. And journalists want a story.

Director Ken Kwapis and screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler deftly keep the film from getting too cluttered by helping to shape per­formances that give us an instant connection to the humans literally trying to save the whales. Standouts include: John Krasinski as a television reporter tired of being stuck in a backwater where nothing exciting happens. Kathy Baker as an unexpected supporter with inside information. Dermot Mulroney as a frustrated military officer, and John Pingayeck, in his first movie role, as a grandfather trying to teach his grandson to listen to the world outside his earphones.

When the TV report is picked up for national broadcast, the first to arrive is Rachel (an earnest and believably bedraggled Drew Barrymore). She’s an environmentalist with no resources but a good story. One by one, those who resist getting involved revise their positions when they’re in the spotlight. No one wants to risk bad publicity — or pass up the chance to look heroic.

Even as they come together, the logistical challenge becomes overwhelming, and the ultimate rescue is bittersweet, not entirely triumphant. The people’s stories, especially a trumped-up romantic triangle, are not as intriguing as the portrayal of pre-Internet news media. The archival footage is the hub that unites all of the plot elements. Some pointed jabs at media focus on the sensational over the significant.

A turning point comes when White House aide Kelly Meyers (based on Bonnie Carroll) persuades President Ronald Reagan, at the end of his term, to call on his Soviet counterpart for help from a Soviet ice-cutting ship. (Be sure to watch for photos of Carroll’s real-life wedding to the military officer she met at the rescue over the film’s closing credits.)

Meyers sets up a “Hello Gorby, this is Ronnie” phone call that serves as a literal ice breaker for the whales and a metaphorical one for two nations in the very earliest stages of post-Evil Empire relations.

The real miracle is that they learn their differences are small, compared to what they have in common with one another and with the giant mammals who needed their help.

Nell Minow is the film critic for the website

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