In the opening scene of The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos says that he would have liked to have told his story through legal means; regardless of how much any individual audience member knows about the subject of dolphin slaughter in Japan, it quickly becomes apparent that this wouldn't have been merely difficult, but outright impossible. Some documentaries aim to simply present a fascinating subject in a compelling light, while others strive to literally transform our entire foundation of thought. The Cove falls into the latter category, and achieves its goal with poetic ferocity. Simultaneously inspiring and horrifying, Psihoyos' renegade documentary presents us with some genuinely sad and shocking images. No doubt such scenes may be difficult for some to endure, but the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to capture them are truly astounding.
Anyone who's heard of Flipper knows Richard O'Barry's work -- whether they recognize his name or not. The marine mammal specialist who trained the five dolphins that portrayed the salt-water Lassie, O'Barry spent ten years making the world fall in love with these incredible creatures, and the next 30 trying to reverse the damage he had done by those efforts. In the wake of Flipper's success, demand for dolphin attractions skyrocketed worldwide, leading to widespread abuse of the species by humans. When Kathy, the main dolphin that played Flipper, committed suicide in O'Barry's arms, it made him realize that capturing and training these creatures was wrong, and inspired him to dedicate his life to freeing dolphins. The Cove is the story of O'Barry's quest for redemption.
When O'Barry discovered what was happening to dolphins in a tiny cove located in the Japanese town of Taiji, he joined forces with filmmaker Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society to shed light on the atrocities that take place there, and reveal the frightening problems that they pose for everyone in the world. There, in those glistening, picturesque waters, Taiji fishermen routinely capture dolphins for use in the multi-billion-dollar dolphin industry and ruthlessly massacre the remaining mammals to be used for meat. Trouble is, the vast majority of dolphins have been tainted by large amounts of mercury and pose a serious risk to human health, so the question remains: who is eating these dolphins? Japanese citizens don't seem to view the dolphin as a source of food, so could it be that the government has conspired with the fishermen to market the meat as something other than it really is?
To find out the answer to these questions and discover exactly why Taiji fishermen are so intent on preventing outsiders access to this off-limits cove (to the point of harassment and physical confrontation), O'Barry and Psihoyos would, quite naturally, need to break a few laws. Recruiting a team of specialists that include marine explorers, free divers, camera experts, special-effects artists, and one seriously fearless adrenaline junkie, O'Barry and Psihoyos made it their mission to photograph the saltwater slaughterhouse no matter what the cost.
The Cove plays like a cross between a National Geographic special and a high-tech espionage thriller; the filmmakers knew that they had an important message to convey to the world, and they smartly did so in a fashion that's compelling and consistently entertaining. Other activists have been killed attempting similar goals, and the fact that the filmmakers knew their livelihoods -- and quite possibly their lives -- would be at risk in doing so lends the action a genuine sense of urgency. This is a rare documentary with all the tension of an action-packed summer blockbuster, but with real-life consequences for the people involved. That The Cove could draw us in like that while at the same time educating us about just what dangers this practice could pose to the future of our race and our planet speaks volumes about the importance of its message.
Oftentimes at the end of particularly rousing movies, audiences erupt into cheers. It's a somewhat inexplicable response considering that the performers who spent the last few hours entertaining us aren't even there to bask in the warmth of our appreciation. At the end of The Cove, however, there's genuine reason for applause: these filmmakers have really accomplished something, and they've used genuine innovation to overcome the insurmountable obstacles that stood in their way. So, if you feel moved to applaud at the end of The Cove, feel free; then take their tips on how to make a difference and get involved.
The Cove on AllMovie
The Cove (2008)