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