A lot of competing realities elbow one another for space when it's time to tell the true story of a disaster. If you tell the one about presumed heroism with a tragic ending (United 93), you'll attract about 50% of the audience you'd get by telling the stranger-than-fiction tale of one man who lived through what, for others, was instant death (World Trade Center). That shred of comfort and hope is magnetic when there's nothing else to be found but senseless agony.
So eight years after the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, we have The Impossible, a story of sheer luck, coincidence and full-hearted resolution based on one family's true story of survival in the chaotic, catastrophic aftermath of that day. Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) star as an English family with three young sons, caught in the path of the giant waves. Separated and presuming the others dead, the family swims, stumbles and clings to life while hunting for safety and medical care. Maria, nearly fatally injured, relies on eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) to help maintain her focus. Lucas is, in fact, the most active character in the film, capturing most of the screen time, searching for help, getting the attention of doctors and, finally, corralling his younger brothers and father.
It's an undeniably moving account of tenacity and love, the tsunami sequences impeccably crafted without seams so that the line between real and digital appears nonexistent; the danger and point-of-impact terror is harrowing to witness and the performances, especially from Watts and newcomer Holland, emotionally powerful.
But as it exists, even with its blunt depictions of emotional desperation and fear, near-death experience and horror movie-quality gore, The Impossible draws more attention to itself for the winning version of reality (and non-reality) it chooses to present.
It is not even one of the more than 200,000 true stories of loss, choosing instead the novelty of safe passage and family reunion as a way to soothe the senselessness of natural disaster. It is not the story of any Thai or Indonesian survivor; it is, instead, the third mainstream, English-language production to reference the tsunami through the eyes of white Europeans or Americans (the others were Clint Eastwood's impossibly weird, supernaturally lunkheaded The Hereafter and a sequence in the inspirational drama Soul Surfer that turned Carrie Underwood bandaging a victim's head into a moment of unintentional comedy).
It is not even the story of the family to whom it happened. That family is from Spain, with all the dark features and problematic subtitles that implies. They're shown in a still photo at the end of the movie. In fact, this Spanish production is chock-full of Spanish names and creative credits. But does it star Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz? No, it stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, the milkiest blonde/ginger combo money can buy. In a world where institutional racism was nonexistent and on-screen ethnicity and race were not an issue in terms of box office, non-blondes would find themselves with more storytelling access. But that's not this world, yet. That story is still, apparently, impossible for anyone to tell. So come for the drama, just be ready to leave your nagging questions outside the theater.