In October 1988, toward the end of the Cold War, much of the world was captivated when Tom Brokaw, then of NBC Nightly News, announced: “Time and hope are running out for three California gray whales who have been trapped for several days in the thickening ice off the Alaskan coast.”
The true story is the inspiration behind the film “Big Miracle," which follows a family of whales — Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm — who find themselves trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle. The film, based on the book “Freeing the Whales” by Thomas Rose, was directed by Ken Kwapis.
“I found the predicament of the whales so emotional,” Kwapis said during a phone interview. “I knew if only for that reason it was worth telling the story.”
The film presents a number of perspectives, beginning with Inupiat whalers who hunt in order to survive. Activists, media, corporate giants and political leaders form an unlikely team around a common goal.
“I love the idea of a story about a group of people each with their own agenda, often with competing agendas and who have to put aside their differences and solve a problem,” he said.
Kwapis, who also directed "He’s Just Not That Into You" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," approaches each film with the goal of making characters as relatable as possible while showing all points of view.
As the story weaves through the lives of various characters, the audience is introduced to Greenpeace volunteer Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) and young Nathan, played by newcomer Ahmaogak Sweeney. Kramer learns to put aside her prejudices and see whalers in a different light. Carlson comes to realize that chasing his dreams of being a famous reporter do not matter as much as he thought.
As for Nathan, it's a coming-of-age story that Kwapis says is compelling to young and old alike.
“I feel like sometimes people make films in a calculated way,” Kwapis said. “Calculated to please, and I’m not sure that always make for the best film.
“I feel that often Hollywood films today are technically brilliant, full of wonderful eye candy, but I often leave the theater having felt nothing. I want people to feel involved, emotionally invested in the three whales and I want them to feel equally involved in the human stories.”
The Inupiat people were an important part of the human story.
“I wanted to present the Inupiat people and their culture in a way that was honest, not sentimental, not patronizing," Kwapis said.
The director says he fought hard to bring the film to Alaska because of the people. But filming in Alaska, losing three minutes of daylight each day, was just one challenge. An ice field set the size of a football field was built, and at the center of it was an underground water tank that housed three animatronic whales. Even though they were not real, Kwapis says seeing the whales made him very happy.
During the time of the event, about 150 reporters were in Barrow, Alaska. Using archived footage, filmmakers were able to re-create the exact movements of the whales and the shape of the ice opening. Actual footage was interspersed throughout the film.
Though he did not make "Big Miracle" to fit a specific genre, Kwapis thinks parents will enjoy the film with their children and also the discussions that follow.
“The film raises a lot of questions about our stewardship with the planet,” Kwapis said. He noted one instance in which Barrymore’s character goes under the ice and finds that one of the whales is debilitated because its fluke is entangled in crab netting. “It really does raise questions about how well we are taking care of the planet.”
Kwapis also thinks that families will like the film because it's all about a family — parents protecting their young and struggling to survive.
“I am always gratified when I go to a film that not only moves me emotionally but transports me to a time and place I would not normally go," Kwapis said.