It was October 1988. The Los Angeles Dodgers beat the heavily favoured Oakland Athletics in a terrific World Series. Movie goers packed theatres to watch Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. That era's creed of pop psychology was put to music Bobby McFerrin's hit song Don't Worry, Be Happy which topped the charts. Americans, it seemed, were doing everything they could not to pay attention to that event which happens every fourth October; the final weeks of a presidential campaign. That year it was Vice President George H. W. Bush against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Did anyone even care?
But could America's political ennui have been so distracting as allow for one of the most bizarre, remarkable and intensely covered news stories of the late 20th century to virtually take its place? This is precisely what happened. For nearly three weeks in October 1988, the world looked on in feverish excitement as hundreds of people (along with millions of their dollars), converged upon tiny Barrow, Alaska, one of the most isolated and northernmost villages in the world.
They came from different countries, continents and cultures. They spoke different languages. They pursued competing interests and sought to advance conflicting political ideologies. Yet, they nonetheless spontaneously and voluntarily cooperated to save (and report on the saving) of three California grey whales trapped not by man, but by nature (they call it 'winter' in Alaska). To this day, the whale rescue of 1988 remains one of the most intensely covered news events of all time and perhaps the world's greatest show on ice.
What was it about this outré event that first lured-in viewers by the millions; then encouraged folks like me who either covered the event or participated in the rescue, to write books, option screen plays, broadcast TV documentaries; and now, 22 years later, to spend nearly $40 million (twice as much as the rescue itself cost) producing a star-studded Hollywood movie?
As the person who wrote the book upon which Universal Studio's 2012 movie Big Miracle was based, I think I have an answer. It was a great story. Great stories make great movies. In this case, the story rather easily lent itself to a retelling in a way that could be controlled, funny, clear, and intelligent.
Although screen writers Jack Ariel and Michael Begler needed to create some composite characters to sustain the unitary dimension necessary to best tell the multifaceted story, the actual depiction of events an extraordinarily accurate retelling of the story; down to the tiniest detail. The movie works in 2012 for the same reason the story worked in 1988. The story was compelling enough to persuade viewers to suspend their own disbelief or prior knowledge of what was to happen.
The narrative sets in motion its own chaos theory. the hurricane's formation contingent upon the flapping of a distant butterfly's wings weeks before. It all had to work together and the sensitive dependence on initial conditions.
Star John Krasinksi tells the story of an early exchange with Director Ken Kwapis regarding the script. "We've got to cut back some of this stuff because it's a little unbelievable.' And he's like, 'No, it's all true.'" Thus the rather implausible tale of how the world converged on the tiny frozen hamlet of Barrow, AK in October 1988 to witness, fund and cheer-on the rescue of three trapped California grey whales.
The story's multiple plot lines, characters and scenes provided a vitality strong enough for the story to transcend its narrative virtues by seamlessly going from pictures to words and back again.
The story of the rescue didn't need any embellishment or re-arranging. It came pre-packaged as a beautifully organised, compelling narrative through. It didn't take much more than transcribing events to create a book that Reader's Digest designated Best Non-Fiction of 1990. Believe me. I'm not that good.
Merely recording a typical story's actual unfolding is almost never sufficient to express the gamut of human experience it entails. That requires a creative effort. Many times a massive effort. Events need to be chosen, characters have to be developed, if not invented from whole cloth and human conduct revealed. But the story behind Big Miracle was anything but typical. All the creative and material ingredients were present at the story's initial unfolding.
As the author of the book upon which Big Miracle was in large part based, I applied the same standards, albeit a bit more exacting, than any film viewer would. Are the characters believable? Was their conduct sincere? Do the events portrayed appear truthful? And finally, in asking whether or not any film succeeds, the viewer must ask whether or not the film created an illusion of experience vivid enough to seem real to the viewer?
Under 'movies', an old-dog eared dictionary in my basement reads, "an artistic expression using pictures and sounds to create experiences that can transcend the viewers' surroundings, friends', and even lifetimes.' To someone from any age before our own; reading the description of such an unfathomable experience may well have been labelled a Big Miracle.
Big Miracle is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures UK