Drew Barrymore with her new fiancé, Will Kopelman, at the premiere of Big Miracle. Photograph by Jeff Martin.
The so-called “whale movie” came to town last night with a splashy screening and a Potomac waterfront after-party for some 1,400 people. Big Miracle is the film’s official name, and it has an interesting, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting local angle. First, you need to know the name Bonnie Mersinger Carroll.
It was 1988, and Carroll—then Bonnie Mersinger—was working at the White House as the executive assistant for Cabinet affairs. President Reagan stopped by her West Wing office to inquire about an incident that was unfolding in Alaska, where three whales (two adults and a baby) had become trapped in the Arctic Circle by rapidly forming ice. The drama was receiving national media attention. “He saw that the National Guard was involved,” says Carroll, “and he wondered what the White House could do to help. And that’s how I met Tom Carroll.”
Tom Carroll, an Army colonel, was at the time a commander in the Alaska National Guard. He was put in charge of “Operation Breakthrough,” the American effort to try to save the whales, a feat he realized would be impossible without the help of the Soviet Union, which had an icebreaker in the area. The two nations cooperated—which, given that this was in the midst of the Cold War, was unprecedented.
“Tom saw an opportunity to bring together the military, Alaska natives, oil companies, Greenpeace, and even the Soviets,” says Bonnie Carroll. “He was at the center of what became a miraculous operation. It was a step toward world peace at the time.”
It also spawned a romance between Bonnie and Tom, starting with their many phone calls during the crisis; eventually they met, fell in love, and married. This arc of their personal story is in the film, with Bonnie portrayed by Vinessa Shaw and Carroll portrayed by Dermot Mulroney (who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and graduated from TC Williams High School). Drew Barrymore plays the Greenpeace activist, Cindy Lowry, who agitated on behalf of the whales, and John Krasinski plays a local reporter who is the Barrymore character’s ex-boyfriend. The film is based on the book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose.
Tom Carroll died in 1992 when his Army National Guard plane crashed in Alaska. Seven other soldiers also died. Rather than lose herself in grief, Bonnie Carroll comforted the other widows and surviving families, and from that experience she created TAPS: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Since its founding, TAPS has provided free counseling and other services to more than 35,000 family members who have lost a loved one on military duty.
Last night’s after-party for the screening, which benefited TAPS, was attended by some of the actors, notably Barrymore, Shaw, and Ahmaogak Sweeney, plus Carroll, director Ken Kwapis, Cindy Lowry, and hundreds of survivor families. It was held at Sequoia restaurant and featured two of Washington’s top chefs, Robert Wiedmaier and Brian McBride, and hundreds of pounds of salmon and cod provided by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Wiedmaier, a member of the ASMI board, used 150 pounds of salmon, some of which he turned into rillettes and the rest of which he infused with Asian flavors and served on crispy crackers. A team of Sequoia chefs prepared wok-fried cod, smoked salmon succotash, and barbecue chicken flatbread.
Barrymore walked the red carpet at the Loews Georgetown, showing off her four-carat diamond engagement ring, and appeared briefly at the after-party before slipping out a side door and into a waiting car. She was spotted with fiancé Will Kopelman later, eschewing all the salmon and cod to chow down at one of the city’s popular burger joints, Shake Shack on Connecticut Avenue. Maybe she got her fill of seafood during the ten weeks of shooting in Anchorage.
Back at Sequoia, people talked about the movie with affection. The Wiedmaier family had been to the screening and liked it, except for the fact that—spoiler alert—not all the whales make it.
Also at the after-party: Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Senator Mark Begich, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young of Alaska; Tom Rose, Gary Bauer, Dan and Aerin Bryant, Jim and Ian Carroll, General Craig McKinley, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Major General Errol R. Schwartz, Catherine Stevens, Paul Rieckhoff, Edward and Monique McNally, Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell of Alaska, Nini Ferguson.