The Cove (review)

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Not Watered Down

Think “guerrilla journalism.” A band of activists led by former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry (who, in the 1960s, trained the animals used on TV show Flipper until he had a change of heart about keeping intelligent, sentient beings in captivity) and Louie Psihoyos of the Ocean Preservation Society (a renowned nature photographer who makes his documentary feature debut as a director with this astonishing film) steal into a protected cove in a Japanese fishing village where a horrific slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins happens every year, determined to capture the audio and video evidence the world needs to understand the horror and the pointlessness of what is happening there.

They tried to record the goings-on legally, Psihoyos explains with a metaphoric, wonderfully devil-may-care shrug, but the cove is zealously protected by the local police, politicians, fishermen, and even gangsters, all of whom make a lot of money off the awful harvest even as the Japanese public at large knows nothing of it. (A few dolphins destined for aquatic parks to be performers bring in big bucks in something O’Barry now likens to a slave trade, considering the obvious self-awareness and smarts of the creatures; the rest are butchered for meat so toxic with mercury it can only be hustled off on Japanese consumers if it’s mislabeled as something other than dolphin.) So, with determined aplomb, the team — which also includes Hollywood master technicians who create high-tech hidden video and audio recording devices as well as endurance divers who can conceal the equipment around the cove — court bodily harm, not to mention legal prosecution, in order to do the job they fervently believe needs doing.

Passionate people highlighting a sin or a crime or a wrong they want to change: that’s practically the very definition of “documentary” these days. But The Cove has balls in spades, like I haven’t seen in other similar activist movies of recent vintage: it doesn’t merely use the narrative structure of a fictional heist popcorn movie to tell its tale, it appropriates the spirit of the attractive-criminal story too. It trusts that we’re on the side of right rather than side of legal, truly engages us in its aggressively antiauthoritarian attitude. The Cove is not polite, and it is not demure. And that is so refreshing a change from documentary talking heads, for no matter how appropriately angry they are, they’re still just sitting in front of a camera talking. I’m not suggesting those talking heads aren’t working their asses off when they’re not on camera. But we don’t get to see them doing. O’Barry and Psihoyos, though: we see them doing.

And so The Cove, even given its depressing portrait of the clusterfuck of inertia, enforced ignorance, and just plain greed that allows the dolphin slaughter to continue, is powerfully hopeful. (The film won the documentary Audience Award at 2009’s Sundance, and no wonder.) It’s a confident and optimistic reminder that those sayings about dedicated people changing the world and unreasonable people driving progress don’t just sound good: they’re true.

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