Whale film 'Big Miracle' makes Alaska debut

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 29, 2012 

Ahmaogak Sweeney, 12, paused on the red carpet. A movie poster bearing his photo, along with co-stars Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, hung behind him on the Tikahtnu theater wall Sunday in Anchorage.

An invitation-only crowd of cast and crew filed past in heels and sneakers, beads and beards, as Sweeney told news cameras about life behind the scenes.

The giant gray whales seen in the film? Animatronics flown in from Australia, he said. "It's just the front half of the whale, and the rest is on a long beam."

The young Anchorage actor joined hundreds of Alaskans for a special preview screening of Universal Pictures "Big Miracle," the first modern major movie shot entirely in the state. What they saw was a harmless, polished romantic comedy aimed squarely at parents and their animal-loving kids.

Whether general audiences like "Big Miracle" depends on whether they want to see a PG family film that's far more "Free Willy" than "Into the Wild." The hard edges of life in the Arctic have been rounded smooth; even the whale hunting is bloodless.

For Alaskans, the movie offers something more:

Their friends and neighbors.

A fictionalized retelling of the 1988 attempt to rescue three gray whales near Barrow, the film moves from the brassy halls of the Hotel Captain Cook to the Fourth Avenue Theater to a local Mexican restaurant.

Familiar faces appear in nearly every scene. John Pingayak, a Cup'ik mask carver, musician and educator from Chevak, plays a soulful elder whaling captain who sees the public relations value in aiding the animals. KTUU meteorologist Jackie Purcell appears as a CNN reporter.

In fact, the movie is something of a love letter to Channel 2, with cameos from newscasters new and old, including archival footage of an '80s-era, big-hair Sarah Palin.

In the film, Krasinski's character is a reporter for the Anchorage station, ambitious and earnest in plaid and corduroys. Barrymore's bare-knuckle environmentalist works in Anchorage -- scenes shot in the Bruce's T-Shirts shop on Fifth Avenue -- but soon travels to Barrow where she tangles with a young whaling captain played by Kotzebue resident John Chase.

"The very first time I walked on set, it was that scene with Drew and I saw over 100 people in there," Chase said Sunday on the makeshift red carpet. "Inside I was thinking, 'Holy cow John, walk the other way, this is crazy.' "

It's been hard to keep silent about the movie for the past year, he said. "To finally have it be on screen and be out for the masses is excellent. This is what our people need."

After the screening, a woman approached Chase for his autograph in the lobby. He wasn't sure how to feel about his performance, he told her over the chatter of arcade games, but it was good to see Alaska Natives on the big screen.

Many of the Alaska characters in the film are fictional, or only loosely based on real people.

Wasilla photographer Bill Hess documented the whale rescue and attended the Sunday preview. As expected, the script played loose with history, Hess said, but he also found a lot to like.

"I thought the movie portrayed the Inupiaq people in a good light, and that's something you always worry about in advance," he said.

Julie Hasquet, a former TV reporter who covered the rescue and now works for Sen. Mark Begich, makes a cameo as a member of the press corps. "Miracle" is a cute romantic comedy that handles Alaska Native authenticity well, she said.

But the scene -- hinted at in trailers -- in which Barrymore's character dons a wet suit and hops in the frozen ocean to get a better look at the whales is pure Hollywood.

"There's some definite accuracies and some definite fabrication. Nobody jumped in the water," Hasquet said. "They would have died."

Alaska actors describe their roles in Universal Pictures' "Big Miracle" at the Sunday, Jan. 29 Anchorage premiere. (Video by Kyle Hopkins)

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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