We are a profoundly self-interested and cynical civilization. We watch reality television so we can revel in others’ miseries, we turn to social networking to talk about ourselves, we exploit and mock the weaknesses of others, and we profit from our own self-destructive behaviors. We’re greedy and selfish and most of us would turn a blind eye to a dying neighbor if it meant having to get out of bed before the alarm clock summons us awake. And the world loves nothing more than a good take down.
But every once in a while, the strangest most unexpected events bring out the best in us. People die in third world countries daily by the bucketfuls, but if a girl falls down a well in Kansas, the whole country will rally around her rescue. Most Americans can’t find Chile on a goddamn map, but when 30 Chileans get trapped in a mine, the world checks their news feeds every half hour to track their progress and make sure these complete strangers are still OK. Some religious fruitcake in Denver with an arm like a busted cannon wins half a dozen NFL games, and the world tunes in by the millions, not just to make fun of the goofy virgin who sings Jesus hymns on the sideline, but because part of us wants to see him succeed, not because we’re religious, but because we like to believe that drive and determination and effort and religious delusion might one day help the rest of us overcome our own lack of talent, if only for a while.
We’re insanely irrational people.
In 1988, during the midst of a national presidential campaign, the world inexplicably turned its focus to three whales trapped in the ice in the most northern part of Alaska. Using a chainsaw, an Inupiaq Inuit hunter cut holes in the ice in an attempt to direct the whales toward the open ocean five miles away, and nearby villagers using water pumps managed to keep the holes in the ice from freezing. With a little bit of media coverage, this small story snowballed, and before long, biologists were called in, and an international effort was undertaken to save three goddamn whales with which we had no business messing.
Big Miracle is the Hollywood version of that account, complete with B+ celebrities — Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, and Ted Danson — a weak love story, an underdog formula, and a soaring musical score designed to violently rend tears out of your face. And it works, too. It’s one hell of an easy movie to mock from the outside — we’re talking about whales here, people — but it works for the same reason that those three whales captivated the world’s attention in 1988: Because we aren’t such bad people sometimes, and occasionally our stupid irrational big hearts get the better of us.
Mixing actual archival news footage from Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw (among others, including Sarah Palin) to give the story an semi-authentic feel, Big Miracle takes place in the small village of Barrow, where one small town reporter played by John Krasinski grabbed the world’s attention when a story he filed about these whales was picked up by the national news. Within hours, Greenpeace — led by Drew Barrymore’s character — arrives on the scene, and the plight of the whales blows up. An oil company president (Ted Danson) hoping for some good PR volunteers his ice-breaking barge, and President Reagan — trying to seal his legacy and improve the election chances of his vice president, George Bush — puts his support and that of the National Guard behind the rescue effort. The news media arrives by the hundreds looking to goose ratings, and suddenly, all this self-interest turns into something altruistic. These greedy, selfish assholes start to develop an attachment to these majestic creatures, and before you know it, so does the audience.
Big Miracle is a family film, and like most family films, it’s hokey as hell. But that’s the nature of events like these: When they capture our attention, they bring out the hokey in even the most cynical among us. John Krasinski brings that corny Jim-and-Pam magic to the film while Drew Barrymore taps into that hard-to-hate adorableness. It shouldn’t work, and by rights, I should’ve hated every goddamn second of Big Miracle. I mean, I really don’t care about whales. But I bought into it for the same goddamn reasons people in 1988 bought into the real story, and for the same reason people love Rudy and the Slap Shot and Hoosiers: Because we love an insanely good underdog story, and we love it even more when there’s something close to a miracle involved. Fucking insurmountable obstacles and the mounting of them.
Every once in a while, the goodness of people shakes my beliefs in the wretchedness of humanity, an occasional miracle makes me question my lack of faith, and a nice hokey movie that combines the two makes me question all of my beliefs about what makes a good film. Big Miracle will not steal any box-office records or awards gold, but hell if the damn movie won’t steal your heart just a little.
The mockery may begin … now, and f*ck you in advance.