Film Review: The Cove

First-rate documentary that targets Japanese fishermen who slaughter dolphins.

A corrective to the recent rash of unfocused, overhyped documentaries, The Cove tackles one subject with authority and conviction. In examining the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, the filmmakers depict an appalling practice in a manner designed to incite the concerned to take action against it. Some ghastly imagery may deter fainthearted moviegoers, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.

The key to the film's approach is Richard "Ric" O'Barry, a marine mammal specialist who trained the five dolphins for the “Flipper” TV series back in the 1960s. For the past three decades he has dedicated himself to freeing captive dolphins, in the process becoming anathema to aquariums, the International Whaling Commission, and the secretive network of companies who capture and train dolphins.

Blunt, aggressive, and indefatigable, O'Barry proves an excellent guide to the story. Arrested numerous times, banned from conferences, reviled by fishermen, he matches a high-minded ire with quick humor to become a formidable advocate for dolphins.

The opening of the film paints Taiji as a friendly coastal village that harbors a dark secret. By adopting some of the strategies of thriller films, and by taking part in many onscreen scenes, director Louie Psihoyos has been criticized as self-aggrandizing. ("We're kind of like a rock concert," he boasts at one point.) A National Geographic photographer, Psihoyos could have played down his screen time, although the points he makes are cogent ones, and his presence does make narrative sense. He certainly does his job as a director, combining archival footage with interviews and extensive research to persuade viewers that dolphins deserve protection.

It's also clear that something terribly wrong is occurring in Taiji, although finding proof is remarkably difficult. Bankrolled by Netscape founder Jim Clark and a who's who of Hollywood celebrities, O'Barry and Psihoyos can afford to put together a remarkable team to penetrate the defenses surrounding an off-limits harbor. This portion of the film, with hidden cameras, fake boulders, freedivers and night-vision scopes, threatens to turn into a “Mission: Impossible” episode. Still, the tension captured by Psihoyos and his crew is infectious.

After all the care taken to portray dolphins as intelligent and sociable, the payoff to The Cove is as gruesome as any horror movie. It is also a powerful indictment against current practices in both this country and Japan. Each additional detail—the fact that authorities donated dolphin meat laced with toxic mercury to school lunch programs, for example—helps make The Cove's arguments that much more damning.

One important aspect of The Cove is that it doesn't leave you feeling depressed and defeated. As O'Barry puts it, "If the world finds out what is going on here, it'll be shut down." This film could very well effect change in Taiji, but it could also be a turning point in our treatment of sea creatures in general. Instead of making you shrug in despair, The Cove will change how you think about dolphins.