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‘Big Miracle’ is set to open in cinemas around the US on February 3. Playing out in 1988, with the absence of smart phones, online social networks and instant wireless, three California gray whales were trapped off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, during their annual migration in October of that year, but still managed to find their way to the news.
One onlooker of the unfolding rescue was journalist Thomas Rose, whose book “Freeing the Whales” was published in 1989. Rose’s story, originally released as an article in the now defunct Spy magazine and later lengthened into book form, chronicled the events surrounding the tremendous rescue effort on behalf of the three ice-locked gray whales off the shores of Barrow.
When a local news photographer sent video coverage of the animals breaching in a small breathing hole hewn from thick ice, footage found its way from the bureau desk in Anchorage all the way to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s national evening newscast.
Soon, the plight of the whales captured international interest and resulted in a media frenzy that overtook the small city. The residents of the northernmost — and perhaps coldest — town in America were inundated with press. For a sleepy whaling town coming to grips with a changing way of life, this would be one of the biggest mixed blessings to present itself all century.
But it wasn’t just the Fourth Estate that had a vested interest in this human-interest tale. The story caught the attention of the Reagan White House, then focused upon the upcoming November election campaign of Vice President George H.W. Bush. Looking to position Bush as a pro-environment candidate and engage the federal government in the humanitarian effort, the Reagan team enlisted the aid of staffer Bonnie Mersinger, the executive assistant for cabinet affairs, in its efforts.
“President Reagan stopped by my office in the West Wing that night,” recalls Bonnie Mersinger Carroll, technical advisor for ‘Big Miracle’. “He had seen that the National Guard was involved, and he wondered what the White House could do to help. Since I was also a Guardsman, he asked that I extend his offer of help to the Alaska National Guard. And that’s how I met Tom Carroll.”
Col. Tom Carroll was serving as commander of one of the major battalions of the Alaska National Guard when he received a barrage of phone calls from Mersinger. Although initially put in charge of moving a behemoth hover barge across the ice, Carroll soon found his mission to be impossible and suggested the use of a Soviet icebreaker for the rescue of the pod of whales.
“This was before the Berlin Wall came down,” says Mersinger Carroll, “so this contact between America and the Soviet Union would prove extraordinary. It was a step toward world peace at the time.” It wasn’t until 1992 that Rose’s story of sensationalism, camaraderie and humanity caught the attention of fledgling television writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler.
Though curious about the story in ’88, their attentions were then elsewhere. “My sister, Andrea, was working for Dan Rather at CBS News,” recalls Amiel. “She thought the story would spark our interest as the basis for a film, although Michael and I were focused on writing for television at the time.” The screenwriters kept Rose’s story on the back burner and revisited it in 2001, when they were establishing themselves as feature-film writers.
They purchased the rights to his book and renewed them for nearly a decade as they wrote drafts of the script. “Our source material was Rose’s book and the news footage of the time,” adds Begler. “But a lot of what we wrote was very real. We had to embellish and create new characters to form the story, but we wanted to stay consistent with what really happened for two long weeks out on the ice in 1988.”
The fact that two of the whales were eventually freed and returned to the open ocean made the story an overwhelming media favorite. Topping it off was the fact that — in an unprecedented thaw in the Cold War above the Arctic Circle — two superpowers put aside their differences and worked together for the good of the mission.
“The American icebreakers had all been waylaid or placed in dry dock by October,” explains Begler, “so the Soviet ship was the only one available. The use of the Soviet ship was a big gesture from the Reagan administration and the Gorbachev government. Cooperation also made them both look good to a watching and waiting world.”
The writers took the screenplay to the principals of their management company Anonymous Content, Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, who helped to shape it. Eventually, both came onto the project as producers, alongside Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, co-chairmen of the feature’s production company, Working Title Films.
“Michael brought the script to my attention,” recalls Golin. “I felt like this could be a movie about people working for common goals, even if they did not agree philosophically. Ken (Kwapis, director) understood that tone of the film. He brought a sense of humor and an everyman touch, while also seeing it as a moving, emotional and inspirational story.”
Although Rose’s book dates back to the late ’80s, Sugar believed that Amiel and Begler’s script could have been drawn from today’s headlines. “We thought that given what was happening in the world at the time, this story would resonate well in the present,” says Sugar. “Even though it is several years old, it is relevant as a story of modern humanity and shows the spirit of change.
In 1988, information was not as free-flowing; except for CNN, we didn’t have 24-hour newscasts like we do today. This story was like a rumor spread around the world and helped by the emerging use of satellite transmission.”
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