Michelle Sparck of Bethel was a high school freshman when the rescue of three gray whales near Barrow became a worldwide spectacle. Now her home state, not to mention several friends, are appearing in the Hollywood retelling of that story.
Sparck was among the first to see "Big Miracle" at a test screening Tuesday in New York. So how was it?
This is her review:
By MICHELLE SPARCK
In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to preface this review by admitting that as a resources specialist with an Alaska Native organization that exists primarily to protect Native subsistence rights, I have butted heads and been at odds with national and international environmental groups.
I had a very reputable group’s staffer whom I was working with nicely say to his boss -- right in front of me -- “We’ve got our Native!” in such a way that I almost walked off before a press conference where we were, for once, united in a cause. I also think that the state should be doing a lot more to diversify our economy rather than depend on an industry that is responsible for over 85 percent of the State’s revenues.
However, I am also a huge movie buff. I’ve loved Drew Barrymore since “E.T.” and almost every vehicle she’s been in. I loved “Cheers,” so I’d enjoy Ted Danson (himself a rather active oceans environmentalist.) Tim Blake Nelson from “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Dermot Mulrony in anything, and so on. It is a rather impressive cast and it was exciting to follow the casting and production process of what was then “Everybody Loves Whales” through my friends in-the-know on Facebook. The movie centers on the international spectacle that unfolded in October 1988, when a family of gray whales were iced-in near Barrow before their migration to their wintering waters of California.
My friend Tara Sweeney’s son, Ahmaogak, plays Nathan. The character is actor John Krasinski’s side-kick and the grandson of Malik, the whaling captain. The captain, longtime performer John Pingayak, is from my mother’s Qissunamiut Tribe of Chevak. My buddy John Chase plays a whaling leader named Roy. It is really neat to say there are too many more to name, as many locals were hired for every facet of the project.
I was a freshman in high school when this was happening. Many of us, as Alaskans, felt curious about the predicament, but never imagined such an expensive and exhausting rescue mission would unfurl.
Hindsight is 20/20 and a script makes it easier to deliver a sense of certainty when there wasn’t any. It is curious to see how this plays out in capturing the hearts and minds of the world with the help of the media, election year politics and an opportunity to draw back the Iron Curtain between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
I fell into an opportunity to sit in on a screening of the film in New York on Tuesday night. The tickets were free, as was the popcorn and drink. Before the movie began, the Universal team announced to the audience that Drew Barrymore was going to be joining us after the movie for a little Q&A session.
The movie opens with a whaling hunt in progress, though the scene cuts away before the killing strike. It shows village life, as village as it can be in a liberally sunlit fall-time Barrow. Krasinski, as Adam Carlson, an Anchorage reporter dispatched to cover some outpost stories, asks a visitor to consider the contrast of a $400 dollar house next to a $400 million dollar school, highlighting the dichotomy of living conditions in an oil rich area. This kind of helps set up the underlying premise that whaling, in general, is the real lifeblood of village life as opposed to oil being the economic engine.
The reporter chances upon the whales out on the frozen horizon and Carlson’s subsequent video feed provides a closing for Tom Brokaw’s NBC evening news, bringing the whale’s plight to every American living room. Gray whales aren’t designed like the bowheads to use their heads to keep ice from freezing above them, so the already distressed whales are visibly beat up from the effort to keep their air hole open. The Inuit are first to maintain the opening, while they consider what kind of action to take in addressing this predicament.
Even as they speak of making an exception to harvest the whales (grays are not a traditional food source) they care for the whales as any good stewards of a resource are wont to do. School kids, animal lovers, locals, and even an oil executive’s wife all come together with Greenpeace activist Drew Barrymore (playing Alaskan protagonist Rachel Kramer) to press fictional Governor Haskell (omitting Gov. Steve Cowper) to engage the National Guard. Once the oil company and Greenpeace’s $2 million dollar plan to use two huge fuel-sucking helicopters, an icebreaking barge the size of a football field, biologists, pilots, North Slope Borough employees and Prudhoe Bay oil field crews working 24 hours a day fails, President Reagan is brought into the act, deepening his relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
As a cynical policy wonk in an oil-and-gas state with massive competing environmental interests, it is pretty funny to see Ted Danson’s corporate character duke it out with manipulative and monied interests that Drew represents, and throw in calculated Reagan/Bush Sr. electorate considerations in the mix. The beauty of this storyline is that while everybody loves whales, everybody is getting something out of this ordeal.
One of the most interesting side stories in this ‘inspired by a true story’ film is the real-life love story that developed in the most cinematic way -- a transcontinental spark between a Reagan aide charged with monitoring the National Guard's efforts under the officer in charge. Their names have been changed in the movie, but Bonnie Mersinger (played by Vinessa Shaw) and Alaska National Guard Brig. Gen. Tom Caroll (Dermot Mulroney) actually married a year after the rescue. Bonnie, who had been talking with the abrupt officer on the phone, decided she was going to marry him before they ever met face-to-face. She flew to Alaska to assist in seeing that the joint American-Soviet mission succeeded. Sadly, Tom Caroll and seven others were killed in a 1992 crash of an Army C-12 plane in Alaska.
From a Native’s perspective, I was curious to see the scene Kotzebue resident John Chase spoke about shooting with Drew Barrymore. In that moment, cultures would clash over the value of the whales. I tensed when it came up, since I knew Barrymore’s Greenpeace character was going to have to be, shall we say, a little insulting and insensitive to the whaling culture. And she was. John’s character, the whaling captain Roy, was rightfully testy but delivered an impassioned rationalization for hunting, along with a lesson that there is a relationship between the Inuit and the whales that can’t be taught or relatable in glossy environmental pamphlets.
John Pingayak, pulling off a thoughtful and respectful leader, showed throughout the film that whalers consider the spirit and well-being of the marine mammals even when outsiders just see the ‘take’ in consumption.
The whales are portrayed in a mix of real wild footage, actual rescue footage, animatronics, models and digital manipulation. They were shot to show the eyes a lot, so that we could see a soul, a family and trust. Drew’s dedication and humble empathy for the whales distress was convincing, as it was from the rest of the cast. It was not a comedy, it was not a dramatization, it was not a love story, but all those touchstones were there. Alaskans will have to try and disengage their historical lens, and just enjoy the movie for what it should be, a feel-good family flick that we can watch over and over again.
When Drew Barrymore came out following our test screening, she seemed tiny and sweet. Her hair was the same as in the movie but she wasn’t as au natural, she looked like the Cover Girl she is.
I jumped up at the opportunity to be the first to say something, and that was to make sure and thank her for her efforts to do as much business and filming in Alaska as the project called for. She said she felt it was important for authenticity and that she was glad she did it. If only Dermot Mulroney’s upcoming film with Liam Neeson, “The Grey,” did the same.