I wasn't expecting to like Big Miracle. The trailers made it seem like just another Free Willy, with a hysterical Drew Barrymore thrown in for good measure. In reality, though, it's actually a pretty compelling flick inspired by Operation Breakthrough, the 1988 global effort to save three whales stuck under some ice in the Beaufort Sea.
Big Miracle dramatizes the international media frenzy that broke out after one reporter (played by John Krasinski) accidentally stumbled upon the trapped whales. The plight of the whales captured the world's attention, and rekindled an ongoing fascination with the North in general, and Alaska in particular. This mysterious, faraway, sparsely populated frozen landscape frequently captures our imaginations. We may not necessarily want to visit, but that doesn't stop us from wondering what the heck goes on up there (besides observing Russia from doorsteps).
There are a disproportionate number of movies and TV shows set in Alaska, from Northern Exposure to Gold Rush Alaska to Insomnia to, well, Alaska. The list goes on and on. (And no, I didn't forget about Sarah Palin's Alaska.) Not too shabby for the state with the 47th-largest population. After all, you don't see too many flicks set in South Dakota or Delaware, both of which boast slightly more people than The Last Frontier.
So why the fascination? Maybe we're in love with the idea that there's this place that's so close yet so, so different. It's pristine and wild and, in some stretches, it's probably possible to drive for an hour without passing a single McDonald's, Starbucks or Wal-Mart. It appeals to our sense of exploration and wonder.
Of course, part of its appeal is also that it's scary. Movies like 30 Days of Night exploit the fear of darkness that Alaska's long stretches of dark, dark winter days bring to life so vividly. Flicks like Into the Wild, sadly based on a true story, explore the notion of embarking into the wild and never emerging. TV shows like Sarah Palin's Alaska, on the other hand, highlight the horrors of having a mother who flies you into a remote area where you come thisclose to getting eaten by an aggressive mama bear.
Shows like Northern Exposure and Men in Trees capture the inherent humor at play when a southerner adjusts to Alaska's nuances. That's something that Big Miracle capitalizes on, too, to a degree. It's quite amusing to see how the big city reporters descending on tiny Point Barrow react to the town's bone-chilling temperatures and lack of southern amenities. Kristen Bell is great as the demanding diva from a Los Angeles TV station.
Big Miracle also touches on the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that went on throughout Operation Breakthrough -- from finessing state governors and wooing local natives to manipulating big oil and even getting President Ronald Reagan to call in a favor with the Russians.
So, if the kids are begging you to take them to Big Miracle this weekend, fear not. There's something in it for the adults, too.