What It Is
During his last few days on assignment in teeny tiny Barrow, Alaska, ambitious TV reporter Adam (John Krasinski) takes a ride to the icy coastline. This because he’s promised a local kid, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), that he’ll check out his cousin’s awesome ski-doo tricks. With his camera on his shoulder, Adam is 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 — they’ll drown, trapped under the ice — or so say a couple of men who know, wildlife expert Pat (Tim Blake Nelson) and Nathan’s grandfather Malik (John Pingayak). Named Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm by the crowd who assembles around the water hole, the whales become international celebrities when Adam’s story is picked up by NBC. This attracts the attention of Adam’s ex and fervent Greenpeace activist Rachel (Drew Barrymore), who presses the governor (Stephen Root) to send in the National Guard, a request he does his best to ignore — until Barrow is beset by a swarm of reporters, including Los Angeles-based, perfectly coiffed and carefully dressed Jill (Kristen Bell).
Based on a true story from October 1988, the film follows the efforts of multiple parties to save the whales, including area Inupiat tribe members, oil tycoon JW McGraw (Ted Danson), a couple of water-heater inventors (James LeGros and Rob Riggle), President Reagan (seen in archival clips when he’s not being played by an unconvincing stand-in’s back), and even Mikhail Gorbachev. Everyone’s got a self-interest: McGraw seeks good press as he pursues drilling in Alaska, the inventors want to sell their gadget, and the tribal whalers want to convince outsiders they can manage their own hunts (that is, be selective and work with nature, not against it). Even Reagan, as he’s advised by aide Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw) that this is good pro-environment PR for his outgoing administration. (Background TV reports show George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail, suggesting the political transition.)
No one quite anticipates the difficulties of saving the whales. Shaw offers his hoverbarge and an Alaska National Guard team headed by Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) start dragging it to the site with a couple of Chinook helicopters, only to run into ice that’s too deep and dropping temperatures. Eventually, the team in Alaska convinces Reagan to ask the Soviets to send an icebreaker, an event that might be heralding the eventual end of the Cold War — at least that’s the story in this film.
Why It’s Fun
The whales are charming, in their animatronic way. As the people gather around them, as they argue and worry and then cheer when something goes right, the whales remain large bobbing objects, bearing the humans’ hopes and dreams. As such, they embody viewers’ fantasies as well, and so it matters less what the whales do in any scene than what they represent. They’re fantasies for kids and adults alike.
The romance troubles between Adam and Rachel lead where you imagine they will, as do the storylines for Shaw (he’s not so utterly venal as he seems at first), for Jill (she finds the job she wants), and for young Nathan, who learns to appreciate his grandfather’s wisdom, as much as that dispensed by the audiocassettes Adam lends him (Led Zeppelin and Axl Rose).
The scenes showing the crowds of outsiders descending on the small town will remind viewers of other similar scenes in other movies. They also serve a thematic function here, as Adam will eventually decide whether he wants to move to the city — to be a big-time network TV reporter — or stay in the town that grants him other sorts of pleasures, from the outdoors to traditional cultures to loyal communities and friends.
Who’s Going To Love It
Young viewers who know nothing about the real-life story will appreciate the whales, who regularly poke up their animatronic noses to be petted and soothed by people bundled up in down parkas and fat boots. These viewers will like too the special connection Rachel develops with the whales, when she goes under water with them and cuts a bit of netting off the baby whale’s tail (this might remind some viewers of last summer’s Dolphin Tale), thereby allowing him to swim a bit more freely. Her earnest looks of wonder as she swims with the whales, as well as the underwater footage here, are lovely.
Other viewers, who might remember the event or read Tom Rose’s book, Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event (on which Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script is based), will recognize some details. More than a few viewers will get a kick out of closing “where are they now?” round-up concerning the real life subjects that shows the real life versions of Kelly and Scott (Bonnie Carroll and her late husband Tom) at their wedding, as well as archival footage of Adam’s inspiration working at an Alaska TV station with a new sports reporter, a very chipper Sarah Heath — soon to be Sarah Palin.
What To Be Aware Of
If some of the backstory has to do with global and financial politics (oil drilling rights, international feuding), most of the film finds grounding in the interpersonal relationships of specific characters. These are sometimes simplistic, but they can speak to younger viewers.
Some language, including “holy crap,” “bastards,” and “damn.”
Notably, the film includes a very sad sequence when one of the whales dies, with tears and regrets and even a prayer by Nathan’s grandfather. This might be upsetting for younger viewers, and a good opportunity for discussion.
7 out of 10
Director: Ken Kwapis
Cast: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, John Pingayak, Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney
Studio: Universal Pictures
US Premiere: January 27, 2012
UK Premiere: February 10, 2012