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