August 24, 2009

REVIEW: The Cove (A)

Before I left San Diego a few years ago, I made an effort to try and visit all of the local attractions that I'd always avoided as tourist traps, such as Sea World. All the times I'd driven to and through Mission Beach, I never stopped at Sea World. Seemed like a cool place since I'm a sucker for zoos, but either the admission price ($65) or the lukewarm endorsement from others put it near the bottom of my list. Ultimately I never went, and after seeing The Cove I'm actually relieved.

Picking up where Free Willy 3: The Rescue (what, you didn't know there was a second?) left off, The Cove is another one of those hip documentaries that tries to convince you that saving the world doesn't have to involve boring activities like signing petitions and holding up signs at rallies. You can free dive after dark. Or wear masks and arrange car decoys and elude the police. Or use military-grade thermal cameras. You can trespass and install cameras hidden in rocks, or you can barge into an international conference and parade around with a flat-screen monitor strapped to your chest. And you can do all of this without having to call your Congressperson once.

I say all of this tongue-in-cheek, because the truth is that activism really does involve being active, and as the daredevils in The Cove tell us, a relatively small group of people acting can accomplish more than a relatively large group of people talking. In fact, the whole reason the film was made was because Ric O'Barry (pictured below) wasn't even allowed to talk at a particular conference sponsored by Sea World. O'Barry contacted photographer/marine life activist Louie Psihoyos (nd why wouldn't he? Psihoyos looks like a guy who can get things done), and together the men set out to Taiji, Japan, where O'Barry had for years tried to pull back the curtain for the world to see that this small fishing hamlet had a very big secret: several thousand dolphins are slaughtered each year as part of the local fishermen's effort to catch young and healthy dolphins to sell (for up to $150,000 each) to aquariums and marine parks all over the globe, including places like Sea World.

Two facts here underscore the effectiveness of this film in earning your sympathy. First, Ric O'Barry is the root of the problem that he's trying to solve. It's true, he not only acted on the hit show "Flipper" that helped popularize dolphin domestication decades ago, but he actually caught all five of the dolphins who played the title character. As he explains it, it was the suicide (yes, suicide) of his favorite of the five dolphins that opened his eyes to the cruelty of domestication. Since that time, nearly forty years ago, he has committed himself to saving these cetaceans.

His confessional and attempt at redemption brings to mind documentaries ranging from The Fog of War to Tyson, the difference being that O'Barry is neither at the end of his life or in the middle of rehab. He's been clear-headed about this cause for half of his life, and you can't help but wince when you see the archival clips of him on the show. The man has paid for his sins and then some.

The second fact of note in The Cove is that the fishermen who are massacring the dolphins in the hidden cove are actually not doing anything wrong, legally speaking. Their trade is legal and their methods are legal. Whether they are ethical is another question, and that's the question O'Barry and his team are seeking to definitively answer. Aside from the violence wrought on the dolphins, and aside from the ironic identity of Taiji (where you can eat dolphin while you watch dolphins perform), they are concerned with the mercury-contaminated dolphin meat sold and served throughout the country, and the public resources Japan and other countries invest to ensure that dolphin hunting remains legal. Above all else, they are outraged by the killing and domestication of a species that is many people consider as sentient and intelligent as humans. Hunting these animals for these purposes may not be against the law, but you're convinced by the end of The Cove that it probably should be.

When documentaries don't have a particular agenda to push they can afford to exist as pure entertainment (see: Man on Wire). But those documentaries that do have agendas, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Chicago 10, Standard Operating Procedure, Darfur Now, Food, Inc., and The Cove (all, not coincidentally, produced by Participant Productions), well, they have to walk a fine line between their style and their statement. I was skeptical going into The Cove that it would be presented as some kind of cinematic thrill ride, where the message about dolphins would be overshadowed by the gnarliness of the dare and chatter about how awesome it was to use thermal cameras and run from the cops.

But this isn't the case - there is no joking around and slapping of hands back in the hotel room and mugging for the cameras, because these people really do care about their cause, and I admire that. I think there could have been a little more exploration at the history behind the practice and the effect that stopping it would have on the local economy, but based on the evidence presented you can't help but be convinced that something is very wrong when ocean water is turned bright cherry red with blood. Although I wasn't moved to tears by the end of The Cove, I certainly had an unsettling feeling about the hunt that's about to begin again this September.
And I was glad I never went to Sea World.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 28/30= 93% = A


  1. I'd argue that this was more "entertainment" than Man on Wire. It pushes emotional buttons to very little end.

    The irony to me (and one of the fundamental flaws of the film) is that if it weren't for people like Mr. O'Barry, shows like Flipper and places like Seaworld, we wouldn't love dolphins the way we do and we wouldn't be so outraged at people slaughtering them.

    I'm troubled by this hierarchy of animals where one group is ok to eat but another is off limits because we've decided they're cute and smart. Mind you, I say this as a carnivore. I'm not campaigning against meat (though I'm having increasing doubts about it just for environmental reasons), I'm irritated by the hypocrisy.

    I admit this film is entertaining. It's a nifty suspense story that leaves you feeling good that you're changing the world for the better by watching it. Except your not. The best argument against eating dolphin in the film is its mercury content, plus the Japanese should know they're being sold dolphin as whale meat, but The Cove would rather spend most of its time detailing the covert mission to film the horrifying slaughter at the end of the film.

    This is an easy target and it allows Americans to feel outraged and indignant without actually doing anything about it. It's a well intentioned button pusher.

    A better film would've focused on the mercury issue and also would've done more to expose Seaworld where dolphins are mistreated for our enjoyment.

    Food production where animals involved is a horrifying business, but it's not just dolphins. It's cows and chickens and sheep. I don't believe anyone who eats meat has the right to be outraged by the killing of a single species.

    End of rant. Commence sticking it to me. :)

  2. Wow, there's nothing more disappointing than writing an impassioned, positive review only to have the first commenter come in and pee on your campfire with a lot of negativity!

    I suck for doing that just now. Sorry.

  3. Peeing on campfires stinks.

    Ha, no, I love it because we had a similar conversation on the way out of the theater. I think I didn't get emotionally moved by this really at all because I understood that cross-cultural perspective. Animal cruelty is animal cruelty, and if I'm ok with it for all of the cows and pigs and chickens I eat here in America, I should be OK with it for all the dolphins people want to eat in Japan. So to the extent that I'm saying it "probably should be" against the law to hunt dolphins, I'm being completely hypocritical. I guess they did get to me with the dolphin intelligence argument.

    From a filmmaking standpoint, my observation that the entertainment was somewhat muted should say something about how much "Ocean's Eleven" influence I expected there to be. I literally thought that's all this movie was going to be, with celebrities and funky music and reenactments and pranks and whatever other MTV/Jackass/X-Games bits filtered in. That there was any serious discussion at all about whaling laws and dolphin intelligence was a surprise to me. Yes, my expectations are that low - thank Michael Moore and his fumbling of health care in Sicko, as just one example.

    So I agree with you on the hypocrisy but I still think The Cove was more educational than it had a right to be as a "spy thriller" or "caper flick" or whatever else it's being described as.

  4. Thank you for being a good sport.

    A couple of things. 1) I hope the Japanese see this movie, though apparently it was denied a slot at the upcoming Tokyo Film Festival.

    2) Rick O'Barry is a fascinating character and a moving one, though I do think his efforts would be best spent saving dolphins from Seaworld. Though as I said, the irony is that Seaworld is why we love dolphins so much.

    3) I'm glad someone else besides me turns a critical eye to Michael Moore. Love the message, dislike the messenger and his flawed delivery. I hope Capitalism is better than the trailer.

    4) Back to The Cove. I think there are a number of important stories here but that the filmmakers got caught up in one and it shattered their focus.

    5) The movie is clearly exciting people and if it draws them to the website to make donations, that's far from a bad thing.

    6) Keep an eye out for No Impact Man. I don't want to overhype it, but I loved it. It did more to cause me to rethink my habits and their effect on the environment than a million movies with a coves run red by dolphin blood. And it wasn't preachy at all.

  5. Man, I don't like to become wishy-washy about my opinions, but you've almost decreased my love for The Cove in the same people increased my appreciation for District 9. That's what comments are for, after all. I still don't think I'd go below an A-, maybe remove a point for production and/or emotional impact.

    You really bring up a great point, again, about how this could have been better had it widened its scope to include more of a focus on both Japanese food traditions and Sea World/amusement park traditions. Would O'Barry and Psihoyos have wanted to give a Sea World rep any face time? Probably not, but it would have been appropriate to do so in the context of this film.

    But I suppose it's called "The Cove" and the purpose was really to reveal the mystery behind the cove more than anything else. They could have made a movie just about animal cruelty or dolphin intelligence, but then that wouldn't have been nearly as exciting for most people.

    Noted on No Impact Man. I've known of it but have been waiting for an endorsement such as that to make a decision when it arrives in a few weeks.

  6. No Impact Man is firmly in my Top 5 right now.

    I'm not trying to talk you down from The Cove, and actually I feel like a jerk for hating on a film that is so well intended and generally has its heart in the right place.

    The movie they made I think is exactly the one they had to make once they got the footage they got. It WAS interesting how adamant the locals were about not letting the cove itself be filmed and once they spent all that time just getting access, they sort of had to make the end result the centerpiece of the film.

  7. Why feel like a jerk if that's your honest emotion? That's kind of how I felt with putting Man on Wire as my number 3 or 4 from last year, and as is clear by how often I keep mentioning it I still have a confused opinion.

    Great last point, and again possibly pointing out what could be seen as a fundamental weakness of the film: it began without any clear direction (and to some extent it ended in the same way).

    But you have reminded of the few laugh out loud moments that came from The Cove in the form of Private Space. That guy was hilarious.

  8. The more people rave about The Cove, the more I understand how some of you who were decidedly underwhelmed by Man on Wire feel :)

    That must've been unbearable.

  9. Well I wouldn't say I was decidedly underwhelmed by Man on Wire. It was completely entertaining and still featured the Best Scene of 2008. It was only on that deeply emotional level that it didn't fully connect with me. And I think I was only lukewarm about its Oscar win because I found Trouble the Water to be a more emotionally raw and culturally relevant story.

    But the Star Trek raving, yeah, it wasn't a whole lot of fun to be on the other side of that one a few months ago. I also pigeonholed myself on the critical side with District 9 by being so nitpicky, even on though on balance I liked it more than I disliked it.

  10. I know what you mean RE D9, as we've talked about before, I ended up on the other side of the fence with my 4-star TDK review for a couple of nitpicky comments.

    There's a tendency (worse on other blogs) where if you like something, it has to be 100% and vice versa. Dissension will not be tolerated!

    I like the enthusiasm and couldn't live without the comments though good or bad.

  11. Totally know what you mean. Everyone's passionate opinion is what makes this worthwhile, but I could do with a little more accepting of each other's passionate opinions.

    Back to The Cove - interesting article here on Sea World, that says, among other things: "no U.S. theme parks have been allowed to import dolphins or other marine mammals from drive fisheries since 1993". So it sounds like they're not doing it and have just washed their hands of the whole situation, kind of an "ignorance is bliss" stance.

  12. Giving the music a 5 is a generous. It's a horribly conventional score that underlines the moment of the action so that just in case we're not feeling exactly what we're supposed to feel the music will let us know. We lose the sounds of nature, which is essential. The use of the Flipper song is properly grotesque, but they shouldn't have involved Chaplin's Smile in that same manner. That said, Bowie's Heroes, while seemingly conventional, works quite well.

    With that said, I thought the film was effective, especially the end, but that it got bogged down in how they got the footage, which is not as important and a cheap form of entertainment. They're essentially bragging, saying, look what we did.

    Read my review of The Cove at

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Jason. Maybe you're right, especially about the sounds of nature, but I guess from my perspective I didn't notice the score during the action/suspense scenes, which is bizarre because it usually annoys me. For whatever reason, as I mentioned earlier, my suspicions of this movie being a really silly, MTV "Real World" challenge-like show didn't come true.

    I think I accepted that they weren't filming this just to make some "cool" video to show their buddies at home, but to actually collect footage of the cove that they could show to the world (as you said, it was pretty effective0. Maybe they went overboard a bit with the process and secret-spy-mission bravado, but on the other hand it was interesting to see how one could get footage in a seemingly impossible location.


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