erik lundegaard


The Cove (2009)


For obvious reasons, books are known for great first lines more than movies, but the documentary, “The Cove,” gives us a great first line. 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.”

OK, I’m hooked.

That story, by the way, 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 and the rest are driven into 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 dolphin conference 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, O’Barry says. The next day O’Barry was arrested trying to free a dolphin. He hasn’t stopped since.

It’s not just their confinement that bothers him. The acoustic sense of dolphins 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 and we give them what kills them. “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,” O’Barry says. “It creates the illusion they’re always happy.”

O’Barry then 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 the entire town’s against them. 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.

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” gives us the real-life version. So Psihoyos contacts friends at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, who, like Greg Morris on “Mission: Impossible,” use their expertise to fashion faux-rocks around hidden cameras. Two of the world’s great freedivers join the team. A couple of dudes up for a good cause and an adrenaline rush climb aboard.

The question arises: Why are the Japanese killing 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 talk. Most of the doc is like this. It’s about revealing what is hidden. To do so, the team hides what reveals. They 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 hasn’t even grossed $1 million. Jeff Wells, a big proponent, suggested on his site that part of the problem 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. A total of five people were in the audience. Two days later, it skipped town. It even skipped The Crest, the second-run movie theater in north Seattle, which is currently showing the year’s big hit: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The doc suggests that dolphins are not only smart, they’re smarter than us. At times, it doesn’t seem that difficult.

So how bad is the killing? Most of it takes place underwater so you don’t really see it, but you do see the water turn red. And I’m not talking a little red. It’s like the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Moses turns 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 luxuriating in the touch.

—September 4, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard