“We have to be close enough to touch,” Malik (John Pingayak) tells his young grandson, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney). This as their boat draws near a spouting whale and the Inupiat hunter aboard raises his harpoon. A cut to a black screen ensures you don’t see what happens next, though you are advised that Big Miracle is “inspired by a true story.”
That story occurred in October 1988, when George H.W Bush was campaigning to succeed Ronald Reagan as US president. This context is conveyed in Big Miracle by TV, glimpsed in the backgrounds of scenes where people are talking about… TV. These people include reporter Adam (John Krasinski), who first appears in the film interviewing diners at Amigos Mexican Restaurant in Barrow, Alaska. It’s the last week of his assignment in Barrow, and he’s still hoping to get a piece that might help his reel, as he has plans to move on, to go network. Still, he’s a very nice guy too, and so he agrees to fulfill a promise he didn’t quite make, that is, to follow Nathan out to the coast where his cousin will perform amazing ski-doo tricks. With his camera on his shoulder, Adam is unimpressed by the tricks, but distracted by the unexpected sight and sound of a whale’s blow.
It turns out that this gray whale is stuck, along with two others, in a shrinking water hole surrounded by ice that’s expanding by the minute. If they can’t get to the ocean—some five miles away—the whales will drown, trapped under the ice. You learn all this by way of Adam’s reporting, as he interviews wildlife expert Pat (Tim Blake Nelson), part of the frame for his story. When that story is picked up by NBC’s nightly newscast—Tom Brokaw on the desk—Adam is suddenly vaulted into the national spotlight he wanted. His story is helped along when his ex-girlfriend gets wind of it. A fervent Greenpeace activist, Rachel (Drew Barrymore) presses Alaska’s governor (Stephen Root) to send in the National Guard, a request he does his best to ignore—until swarms of reporters descend on Barrow.
And so the film’s focus on the interlocking circles of politics and media becomes clear, as news cameras give a range of positions a platform, from the governor (hugging someone in a fuzzy whale suit for camera) to Rachel (disrupting a press conference on Alaska drilling rights), and the oil tycoon JW McGraw (Ted Danson), who means to get those drilling rights and is all too familiar with Rachel’s protests. When it turns out that he owns a hoverbarge that might be used to cut through the ice to rescue the whales, he finds himself in the peculiar position of agreeing to save the whales (at the suggestion of his wily wife, played by Kathy Baker) in order to conjure good PR. If he can only get these activists off his back for a minute, he guesses, he’ll be able to purse the oil contracts.
This pattern is repeated throughout the film, as TV reports tip off people far from Alaska as to the plight of the whales—named Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm by the crowd who assembles around the water hole—and also the personal and professional benefits to be gleaned from helping them. As you’d expect, these interlopers end up learning valuable lessons, including Los Angeles-based, perfectly coiffed and carefully dressed Jill (Kristen Bell): aligning herself with Adam, who has local connections, she in turn provides him with access to a national audience.
This audience includes some schoolchildren in California, sunny and warm, as well as a couple of water-heater inventors (James LeGros and Rob Riggle), and even Mikhail Gorbachev. Everyone’s got a self-interest: McGraw speaks with reporters on his good intentions, the National Guard wants to prove its skills, and the inventors want to sell their gadget. Even the tribal whalers realize that looking good on TV is in their interest, even if their first idea is to harvest the whales. If they can only convince outsiders they can manage their own hunts (that is, be selective and work with nature, not against it), they might be able get rid of those outsiders.
According to the film, based on Tom Rose’s book, Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event, the TV ripples extend to President Reagan (seen in archival clips when he’s not being played by an unconvincing stand-in’s back), as he is advised by aide Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) to get on the phone with Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), the Alaska National Guardsman in charge of moving the hoverbarge, in order to be part of this huge news story.
Indeed, this is the focus of this true story, how TV makes and shapes true stories. That’s not to say it offers complete control of those stories, and the film tracks some unanticipated problems in the rescue mission, problems that—no surprise—only draw the participants closer together. They may not be close enough to “touch,” but the Americans do eventually ask fro help from a Soviet icebreaker, and so, Big Miracle suggests, set a path toward the eventual end of the Cold War. It’s a good story, however true or untrue it might be.