Review: “The Cove” (2009)
WARNING: WHISTLING, CLICKING AND SCREECHING SPOILERS
Movies aren’t known for their great first sentences the way books are—for obvious reasons— but “The Cove” gives us a great first sentence. I forget if anything’s on the screen, or if it’s black, but you hear director Louie Psihoyos in voiceover:
“I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally.”
That story is relatively simple. Every year in Taiji, Japan, fishermen drive thousands of dolphins toward shore and into a cove, where the best are chosen for “Sea World” type shows around the world, and the rest are driven to a secret cove, where they are secretly slaughtered.
The hero of the story is Ric O’Barry, whom we get piecemeal. Each piece is fascinating. He was supposed to be the featured speaker at a conference on dolphins that Psihoyos was attending but got pulled because the sponsor of the conference, SeaWorld, wanted nothing to do with him. O’Barry’s an activist. He frees dolphins, including SeaWorld dolphins, in captivity. “How many times have you been arrested?” Psihoyos asks him. “This year?” O’Barry answers.
Eyebrows go up—mine did anyway—when you find out that O’Barry’s not just any activist; he was the original trainer on “Flipper,” the 1960s TV series that’s responsible, in part, for the popularity of dolphin shows at places like SeaWorld. The family’s house on “Flipper” was his house, and he guest-starred in one episode. In fact, he captured the five female dolphins who played Flipper.
Near the end of the series, though, one of the dolphins playing Flipper, Cathy, swam into his arms and killed herself. She just stopped breathing. The next day O’Barry was arrested trying to free a dolphin. He hasn’t stopped since.
He says their acoustic sense is so well-developed that the finest sonar in the world is nothing in comparison. Thus loud noises and enclosed areas—like at a Sea World show—are stressful. They get ulcers. They die. We capture them because we love them, then we give them what kills them. “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,” he says. “It creates the illusion they’re always happy.”
After they meet, O’Barry takes Psihoyos to Taiji, where O’Barry’s as known—and as wanted—as he is at SeaWorld. Authorities stake him out, watch him, question him through the fog of a foreign language. The brunt of the story’s here. The goal of the two men is to film the killing that goes on in the secret cove—to let the world know that it goes on—but it’s not easy. Local authorities harass them. Local fishermen harass them, including a particularly annoying and bespectacled man whom they dub “Private Space,” because that’s what he’s always yelling. The cove is surrounded on all three sides by high, private cliffs. There is no public vantage point from which to film. And they are harassed.
Great movies have been made about the assembling of a team—think “Asphalt Jungle,” “Dirty Dozen,” the first season of “The Wire”—and “The Cove” simply gives us the real-life version. Friends at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic use their expertise to fashion faux-rocks around hidden cameras. Two of the world’s great freedivers join the team, along with a couple of dudes up for a good cause and an adrenaline rush. It's “Mission: Impossible.”
The question arises: Why are they killing the dolphins anyway? Not even the Japanese eat dolphin meat. Ah, but the Japanese are eating dolphin meat, unknowingly, because it’s often packaged as something else. The Taiji city council even proposes adding dolphin meat to the diet of all Japanese schoolchildren. This, too, is secret, but two councilmembers who have school-age children and know the dangers of eating such meat—with its high concentration of mercury—come forward and tell the tale. Most of the doc is like this. It’s about revealing what is secret and hidden. To do so, our heroes hide what reveals. At night, they trespass, swim into the cove at night, position the cameras (disguised as rocks) and leave. Then they wait for the killing to begin.
At its high point, in early August, “The Cove” played at 56 theaters in the U.S., but quickly fell off. It’s barely made over half a million dollars. Jeff Wells, a big proponent, suggests that part of the problem with this low turnout is that women who care about dolphins can’t bear to see a doc in which dolphins are slaughtered. That was exactly my experience. It opened in early August at the Egyptian, a mile from my home, but when I suggested it to Patricia—thinking she would leap at the chance—she turned it down cold. Said she couldn’t bear to see dolphins killed. Which is why I didn’t see it until a late weekday September afternoon, in a small theater at the Metro—about five miles from my home—with about four other people. Two days before it skipped town. It even skipped The Crest, the second-run theater in north Seattle that is currently showing the year’s big hit: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” At one point in “The Cove,” it's suggested that dolphins are not only smart, they’re actually smarter than us. Doesn’t seem that difficult.
A mammal that always smiles, with Ric O'Barry, who rarely does
So how bad is the killing? Most of it takes place underwater, so you don’t really see it. You hear the dolphins’ screeches—which, to my ears, doesn’t sound much different than their “happy” screeches—and you see the water turn red. And I’m not talking a little red. It’s like the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Moses changes the Nile to blood. It’s Technicolor red.
Still, the most memorable scene to me, the one I took away, is footage of Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, the world class freediver, swimming with dolphins, and rubbing one on its belly, like it’s a dog or a cat, and the dolphin staying close, and luxuriating in the touch. In the wild. It’s remarkable.
Bottom line: “The Cove” is a good doc that’s doing good work. Apparently the dolphin killing in Taiji has stopped. At least for this year.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard