Big Miracle has basically everything you'd want from an inspiring movie about a group effort to help a family of three California gray whales escape from being trapped in an ice dam in northern Alaska: It's sincere, moving, family friendly, and just to up the tear-jerking ante, it's based on a true story.
The tale begins in 1988 with Anchorage-area TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), who's humoring his 12-year-old buddy Nathan by videotaping his friends doing donuts in their snowmobiles on the frozen water, when he notices a momentary geyser blowing up in the distance. It turns out to be a whale exhaling through its blowhole below a ten-square-foot hole in the ice, where the mammal, his mate, and their baby have become trapped due to the water freezing over earlier in the season than usual. The three whales would have to swim under the ice for five miles to find open water, and that's too long for them to go without coming up for air, leaving them with nothing to do but wait to die when this hole also freezes over.
All hope is not lost, however, as Adam does a story about the whales that gets picked up by the national news. It also gains the attention of his ex-girlfriend Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a passionate Greenpeace worker who's recently been busy making a public stink about the drilling contract awarded to J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), whose oil company sees dollar signs where she sees acres of precious Alaskan wildlife refuge. Soon, sides that seem polar opposites to each other (no pun intended) begin combining their efforts to save the whales, each seeking their own interest while working towards a common goal: A staffer for the Reagan administration (Vinessa Shaw) enlists the help of a National Guard colonel (Dermot Mulroney) in the hopes of improving the president's poor environmental record, an ambitious journalist (Kristen Bell) keeps public support high because interest in the story is helping to fuel her career, and a patriarch of the native Inupiat population (John Pingayak) tries to obtain the help of the locals because respecting the whales serves his people's traditional way of life.
As the story gets going, even oilman J.W. McGraw is pitching in. His own interest lies in PR, but as you can imagine, by the time everyone is on the ice together, differences are put aside for the simple sake of compassion and togetherness. In an exasperated moment, Barrymore's character, the earnest Greenpeace champion, points out that the reason the creatures' struggles are so important is because humans know what it's like to be powerful but also vulnerable, to be frightened sometimes and need help. Big Miracle is a success as an inspirational story, probably because it hammers this point home so well. Even when Kristen Bell's character points out that there are wars being waged all over the world and yet every TV set is locked on the story of three whales trapped under the ice in Alaska, the underlying sentiment of the film is never lost: It's a big world full of big problems, but even in the face of partisanship and division, there's always hope to be found in human kindness.