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Film / Big Miracle

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“I think Barrow might have one great story left in her.” - Adam Carlson

Big Miracle is a 2012 family drama based on the true story of the 1988 international rescue effort “Operation Breakthrough” to free a family of three gray whales trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. It stars John Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.

What makes this film more than a bland feel good story is that the motives for this act of mercy are fully explored such as an oil company executive and the Ronald Reagan administration take part at least in part provide good publicity to counter their media images as environmental villains. On the other hand, Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) is a true blue environmental idealist who has her own problems understanding nearby the Inupiat community of Utqiagvik, who are traditional subsistence whalers who see their way of life threatened by this media event, but feel they have no choice but to play along lest they lose more of their rights from a possible public backlash.

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  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: At the end of the film the two adult whales "Fred" and "Wilma" are saved and seen swimming out to the open ocean, in real life it was unconfirmed whether the two remaining whales survived and made it to the open ocean.
  • Adaptational Name Change: The whales are called Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm in the movie, whereas in Real Life, they were nicknamed Crossbeak, Bone, and Bonnet (their Inuit names were Kanik, Siku, and Putu).
  • Based on a True Story: The film is based on a true story that happened in 1988.
  • Becoming the Mask: Downplayed, but J.W. starts helping the whales solely for the good P.R., but ends up showing genuine investment in their fate, and spending far more money than he'd planned to helping them.
  • Betty and Veronica: Abrasive, local Granola Girl Jill is the Betty, while prim, easily frazzled out-of-town Hot Scoop Jill (who seems interested in the human reactions to the whales than the whales themselves) is the Veronica.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Well, more sweet than bitter. The whales are freed from the ice, but the youngest one (Bamm-Bamm) has already died before it happened.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: During the meeting with the whaling captains in front of the media, Rachel argues with the Inupiat community about the fate of the whales, she brings up that they want to kill a family including a baby and they argue that they depend on whaling to survive and feed their own families, they also both make poor arguments such as Rachel telling them that they could instead buy food from the money that comes from oil (which is not a permanent solution) and the Inupiat whalers claim that the whales pick the whalers and so the trapped whales have chosen them (which is just their own beliefs which can’t be substantiated).
  • Butt-Monkey: Jill does get some breaks thrown her way, but she gets zero respect from her colleagues back in L.A. (they even try to yank her off the story and send in a patronizing coworker once it becomes such a big deal), is unable to get a hotel room, nearly freezes her feet after initially not buying any cardboard to stand on and then gets forced to pay extra for it and her budding relationship with Adam fails. She even lampshades it, and gives serious thought to quitting her job.
    Jill: I'm just a smelly, drunk, depressed Barbie.
  • Cat Up a Tree: Whale up a glacier.
  • Cutting the Knot: Rachel cuts through the politics with naked threats, manipulation and bullying.
  • Death of a Child: The youngest of the three whales nicknamed "Bamm-Bamm" dies before they can be freed.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Rachel seems to get nicer throughout to the film, from a straw Granola Girl earlier on to a more likeable and less reckless character by the end.
  • The '80s: It's set one month before the 1988 election, with the events either helping or hurting leaving President Reagan's environmental record. Despite this, the characters' appearances were all updated to the 2010's, most notably the National Guard colonel and the two Minnesotan brother-in-law businessmen.
  • Enemy Mine: Greenpeace and Big Oil, working together to save the whales (both groups have things to gain by saving the whales).
  • Eskimo Land: One of the most realistic depictions with the Inupiat struggling to cope with a relatively normal situation blown up into a media circus. In that situation, they feel they have to massage their response to keep the world public from turning on them.
  • The Faceless: Whenever Ronald Reagan appears, only the back of his head is seen.
  • Got Volunteered: Dean and Karl are introduced debating about whether they can actually afford to go out to Alaska to publicize their de-icing device, with Karl being all for it while Dean is hesitant. Then the doorbell rings. Dean gets it and finds out that Karl has apparently already told the media that they were going, effectively committing him.
    Reporter: Are you the brave men going up to save the whales?
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: All over the place, and almost everyone has a different perspective.
  • Granola Girl: Rachel.
  • Hats Off to the Dead: Most of the residents of Utqiagvik take their hats off after Bamm-Bamm dies.
  • Honest John's Dealership: The young Inupiat boy takes advantage of the situation through a number of quick sales to unprepared tourists ($20 for a piece of cardboard to insulate their feet from the ice, for example). Adam even calls him Gordon Gekko at one point.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Adam gets a phone call which is Jill who has seen his news report on the whales and demanding an expiation for why he didn't contact her about the situation (because she is worried for the whales lives). He responds by using her words when they broke up to point out that they are no longer in a relationship (so he is not obligated to contact her), he also explains that even if he did call her there is nothing she could do, she disagrees because "there is always something you can do".
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • J.W. Though he's in it for the publicity, he respects Rachel's determination to help the whales get to safety and thinks about both sides of the spectrum.
    • Rachel: Though she's dedicated to saving the whales and probably the only one involved in the affair who doesn't (personally) have an ulterior motive, she's also extremely self-righteous, tactless, and thinks nothing about bullying, threatening people and running smear campaigns to get the whales out.
  • Knight Templar /Principles Zealot: Rachel at times.
  • Magical Native American: Subverted in that the Elder Inupiat character understands not only the ways of nature, but the intense political nightmare the community would face if they harvested the whales with all the media watching.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Jill expresses some frustration with how much media attention the whales are getting (admittedly after being threatened with being yanked off the story by her station), pointing out that there are thirty wars being fought around the world right now that are being ignored for this human interest story.
  • Minnesota Nice: Karl and Dean, who arrive with a new de-icing machine to use just as the whales' hole is freezing over.
  • Mood Whiplash: The elation at seeing the whales finally heading towards the coast, using the holes is cut short by the realization that their baby isn't with them, and has died.
    Adam: Where's Bamm-Bamm?
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: The Soviet icebreaker crew are not going to be stopped by a wall of sheer ice just because it might damage their ship. They are going to break through it even if it kills them.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Well maybe not rich, but the Eskimos are receiving large annual checks for oil drilling on their lands, but continue whaling rather than just buy all of their food. Rachel is pretty pissed off about this. When she points it out at a tribal meeting, Roy, one of the whaling captains, points out that the oil won't last forever, and they need to keep teaching their children whaling so they're prepared for if/when they have to back to fishing to survive.
  • Not Quite Saved Enough: Rachel dives down with the whales risking her life to remove a net from Bamm-Bamm's tail which has been harming him and making him weaker, but he still ends up dying later on.
  • Older Sidekick: Dmitri, the first mate of the Soviet icebreaker, is about a decade older than his captain.
  • Ramming Always Works: The Soviet icebreaker crew risks damaging the ship by ramming the ice wall with three tries of increasing force.
  • Real-Person Cameo: At the end, with a clever use of stock footage, it's revealed that the sports reporter at Adam's TV station is Sarah Palin.
  • Romantic False Lead: Adam has a crush on Jill Jerard, and they seem to hit it off at first, but at the end of the movie he's back together with Rachel.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Almost everyone involved is doing this extraordinary act of kindness for their own self-interested agendas, at least at first. Even Rachel, the most idealistic character, is pointed out to be using the crisis to solicit donations for Greenpeace and position herself as an authority on Artic environmental issues for other campaigns
  • Straw Character: Amazingly enough averted. Everyone, whether they are on the left or right, are sympathetic, and have their flaws. And in the end, both sides put aside their differences to work together to save the whales.
  • Those Two Guys: Karl and Dean, who appear together in all of their scenes, and have a nice banter. The same is true of the Russian icebreaker captain and his first mate.
  • Worst News Judgement Ever: Played for Drama, rather than comedy, in a scene where Jill rants that one family of trapped whales is getting more attention than wars going on elsewhere in the world.
  • Yet Another Baby Panda - The story was a small one even for local Alaska TV, but then the national nightly news picked up the story and to put on the last minute, and that's how the media circus began.