Seagoing documentary lets audiences in on a shocking secret
Directed by Louie Psihoyos
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but summer is rapidly coming to a close. It’s not ending tomorrow or anything, but vacations are wrapping up, the Fourth of July is a distant memory and back-to-school sales are in full swing. It’s evident in the summer box office as well. Star Trek, Terminator, Transformers, Ice Age, Harry Potter: The franchises have all come and gone. The only “big” movie left (and it definitely belongs in quotation marks) is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. With that, you can stick a fork in summer 2009 because it’s ovah. Perhaps, then, it’s time for a return to more somber cinematic fare. In other words: You got your talking gerbils in G-Force, now how about some endangered dolphins in The Cove?
Yeah, I know. For a lot of people, serious, issue-oriented documentaries are like cod liver oil—probably good for you but hard work to choke down. Crying shame, that. Because we’ve had some very good, very important documentaries lately (last week’s Food, Inc., for example). And in many ways, The Cove might be among the most important.
The Cove is the work of director Louie Psihoyos, a photographer for National Geographic and a founder of the nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society. Psihoyos begins his film by introducing us to the inspiration for and nominal subject of our film, Ric O’Barry. Hiding behind a mask and sunglasses, hunched over the wheel of his rental car, O’Barry whips through the back streets of a coastal Japanese town, hoping to ditch the mysterious people he’s sure are tailing him. O’Barry’s trying to get to a top-secret, hidden location where he can show off a dangerous secret that apparently no one wants him to reveal. The immediate impression is that O’Barry is some sort of conspiracy nut. But his assertions are quickly proven and his terrible enlightenment soon becomes the burden of everyone watching.
O’Barry became famous as the dolphin capturer/trainer for the popular ’60s TV series “Flipper.” Prior to that show, there was really no such thing as dolphin training. O’Barry made it up as he went along, living and communicating with these fascinating marine mammals for decades. In the process, he inadvertently created an industry. At the time, there were three major aquariums around the world. Today, there are hundreds, and they are part of a multimillion-dollar business.
In The Cove, O’Barry is leading Psihoyos—and by extension, us—to the seaside town of Taiji, Japan. There, for several months out of the year, fishermen herd vast numbers of wild bottlenose dolphins into the town’s bay, bagging them and tagging them for sale (upwards of $150,000 each) to aquariums, sea parks and “swim with the dolphins” resorts around the world. This, in and of itself, is troubling. It’s an industry that the now repentant “abolitionist” O’Barry wishes to end. Realistically, arguments can be made about the value of zoos and aquariums—without them, endangered species breeding and veterinary medicine wouldn’t be at nearly the level that it is. There’s also the invaluable service these parks provide in simply making people aware of the natural world around them. But Taiji’s wholesale capturing and selling of dolphins is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Just around the bay, in a small cove, is where all the unpurchased dolphins are next taken. There, they are slaughtered by the thousands. It’s this practice that O’Barry wants most to expose in Taiji. O’Barry’s film-opening paranoia is soon proven perfectly justified. Government officials trail the filmmakers day and night. Fishermen openly threaten anyone who goes near Taiji’s seaside. The infamous cove itself is a near-fortress of walls and razor wire—funny trappings for a place that claims to be a national park.
Stonewalled and unable to get the answers he needs, Psihoyos recruits what he calls “an Ocean’s 11 team” of cameramen, military experts, world champion free divers and even special effects technicians in an all-out effort to infiltrate the cove. From here, the film unspools like a top-shelf Hollywood thriller. It’s Mission: Impossible with an ecological theme. We’ve got car chases, hidden cameras, high-tech spy gear, villainous powerbrokers, evil henchmen and split-second escapes—all in service to a real-world, stick-it-to-the-man revenge plot.
What Psihoyos, O’Barry and their accomplices reveal is jaw-dropping—not just for its sheer environmental horror, but for the utter pointlessness of it all. One argument for Japan’s harvesting of dolphins (one of many contradictory ones, it turns out) is that it’s “traditional.” We kill cows for food, Japanese kill dolphins for food; what’s the difference? Except that it’s all an elaborate lie. The Japanese don’t typically eat dolphin meat. And if they did, they’d find out it contains toxic levels of mercury. Taiji’s dirty little secret is keeping a tiny handful of fishermen employed in an industry that creates an unwanted, unhealthy product. And yet it continues, year after year. Why? You really have to wonder, certainly after watching the concerted efforts of smug Japanese politicians to steer policy for the International Whaling Commission. (Whales and dolphins are both cetaceans. The IWC still allows the hunting of smaller cetaceans, thanks largely to the vociferous arguments of Japan.)
Once it’s done laying out the Big Truth, The Cove becomes an unapologetically direct call to action. Something has to be done here. You have to do something about this. That’s not a message many people want to hear. It’s hard to imagine moviegoers who aren’t already dedicated to the cause of animal rights or oceanic preservation heeding the call of this film by actually showing up in the theater. Again, crying shame. Grim as its subject matter may be, The Cove isn’t a depressing movie. It’s the kind of movie that makes you angry. Stand up and shout kind of angry. And in this case, that’s a good thing.