Movie Review: The Cove
By Tom Macy
August 3, 2009

This looks like something that should have been in Yellow Submarine.

It's not hard to see why a documentary featuring dolphins is hitting theatres. They're cute, personable and willing to do acrobatics for our amusement. Who wouldn't pony up $10 for some scenic water-scapes mixed with intriguing facts about sea life told by bearded marine biologists? Sounds like a reasonable way to spend 90 minutes.

Okay, stop right there. This is not March of the Dolphins, and The Cove – winner of this year's Audience Award at Sundance- is not a documentary "about dolphins." Take whatever preset notions you have about nature documentaries - or documentaries altogether for that matter - and put them wherever you put your common sense when you pay to see an Orlando Bloom movie. First time director Louie Psihoyos (rhymes with Sequoias) - along with a top-notch crew, particularly producer Fisher Stevens - has crafted a film that is as entertaining as it is powerful. Even without seeing G.I. Joe, I can confidently say that The Cove is the best thriller of the summer.

The title refers to a cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphins are herded and selected by traffickers looking to stock their country's version of Sea World. What they aren't telling people is that a little further down behind a restricted part of the cove, the dolphins that aren't chosen - some 23,000 annually - are being slaughtered for reasons unknown. No one knows about it and the Japanese government is covering it up.

The central human figure and hero of The Cove is Ric O'Barry, who brought this situation to Psihoyos' attention. O'Barry was the head trainer on the TV show Flipper, the show that popularized Dolphins doing somersaults and spawned the now billion dollar global juggernaut that is Sea World. After witnessing the toll captivity takes on these creatures, O'Barry has been fighting for the last 40 years against the industry he is partially responsible for creating. Because he understands these animals so well, O'Barry provides a harrowing perspective. When he explains that "the dolphin's smile is the most deceptive thing in nature", you believe him.

So The Cove is a nature-activist-thriller-documentary with a personal redemption story? Wait, Psihoyos will do you one better. How about if he throws in a heist film to boot? All this government-shrouded slaughtering business is just fascinating, heart-breaking, infuriating exposition. The Cove isn't here to explain, it's here to do. Psihoyos assembles a team of world champion free divers, adrenaline junkies and ILM special effects wizards whose mission is to extract the first visual proof of what's going on in the cove in hopes that upon exposure it can be stopped.

Does this sound reminiscent of Ocean's Eleven? Well it isn't. It is Oceans Eleven. The only difference is that instead of overpaid, attractive movies stars chasing money they don't deserve, these people have an actual cause. Surprisingly, these scenes, which feature military-grade night vision and custom-made cameras hidden in rocks, don't feel contrived even as they are presented in a deliberately slick and disposable tone (not coincidentally, that's my review in a nutshell for Ocean's Eleven). They also keep the The Cove from being too heavy, balancing out the film's darker elements.

Though it may be his first film, Psihoyos has an uncanny eye. This is not surprising, as he is widely regarded to be among the top photographers in the world, shooting for National Geographic and several other publications over the last 18 years. His experience shows and his transition to the moving image is seamless. Several of the images, both the horrifying and the beautiful, still linger in my brain.

But the most impressive filmmaking feat here is that nothing feels crammed in. The cove itself is just the key that opens the door to a sprawling tale of worldwide crisis featuring bribery on the international stage and contamination of 70% of the world's diet. Yet, the narrative shifts between topics and tones with ease. Editor Geoffrey Richman, who was behind the excellent documentaries Murderball and Sicko – which The Cove may be a lovechild of, come to think of it - works his magic yet again, presenting cascades of information in a digestible and retainable fashion, and somehow manages to keep the running time at 90 minutes.

At the movie's center, and what makes The Cove so engrossing, is the real element of danger. One false step could land the crew in a Japanese prison. Forget about just saving the dolphins, those are high stakes. In a film world where excitement usually translates into something that comes out a of computer, this is a real shock to a movie-goer's system. But it's a welcome shock. In particular, the scene where the team breaks in to plant the cameras radiates with suspense like no other film in recent memory.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Sad animals and government cover-ups are always a sure-fire way to get people's blood boiling whether they're real, exaggerated or insinuated. See Michael Moore's career. Am I being told everything? Or am I just being shown sad dolphins?

But where your skepticism may be justified in many films, in Psihoyos' capable hands your expectations are used to his advantage. Take for instance our introduction to Mr. O'Barry. We first meet the 60-odd cap-wearing man as he drives through Taiji - which is a painfully ironically decorated town littered with smiling plaster porpoises. He covers his face in order to not be spotted by the police and suspiciously glances over his shoulder, convinced the Japanese are following him. Big deal, another paranoid conspiracy theorist hippy trying to save the whales. It turns out he does have a tail, as does the entire crew over the course of the shoot.

And that is why the film works. Psihoyos does not lead us astray. After your expectations are defied a few times over – which, trust me, will happen a lot with this film - you feel confident that The Cove will not omit any sides of the story. Any time a question or doubt pops into your head, you can rest assured that it will be addressed. You are in good hands. Just sit back and go along for the ride.

And then go here and do something about it.