(Reprint from our Sundance 2009 coverage. The film opens this weekend, so go find a local theater!)
Wow. Just wow. This is easily one of the most powerful, heartfelt, and (yes, I'll say it) important 'nature' documentaries I've ever seen. Here's a brutally honest and effortlessly fascinating film about one specific cove in Taiji, Japan, in which approximately 23,000 dolphins are killed every year. Yes, you read that right: 23,000. Dolphins. Annually. And here's the really twisted part: Given the amount of mercury that's found in these creatures, they're practically poison. But where there's money to be made, there are atrocities to be committed.
So while most of the better "socially conscious and angry" documentaries are forced to look at a tragedy with years of hindsight, The Cove is so timely it almost hurts. This is not a film that looks backward and says "Jeez, what a shame that was," but one that screams "Look at what's happening right now, and we really have to stop it!" As this masterful documentary states its case, we're introduced to a bunch of key players: Richard O'Barry, former dolphin trainer and longtime advocate for the animals; filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, who spearheads a massive effort to expose this sickening practice; a pair of world-class free-divers who gladly throw their skills into the mix; and an extra handful of daredevils, tech experts, and cameramen who are willing to risk a month in a Japanese jail ... just so they finally can get some video footage of these secret slaughters.
Along the way we're given several facts, anecdotes, and insights on how this sort of abuse is allowed to continue. Those who fight for the survival of the dolphins (specifically, the Oceanic Preservation Society) lay much blame at the feet of the International Whaling Commission, which claims to protect the larger cetaceans -- but allows the dolphin massacres because, well, it's an industry. Nearly all of the world's "show dolphins" (as seen in Sea World, for example) come from Taiji, and guess what? Thousands more are mercilessly harpooned to death so their poisonous meat can be labeled as "whale" and then dumped into numerous markets. And there's even talk of using the dolphin meat in schools! So a beautiful species of mammal is being destroyed at the same time a fishing industry poisons its own customers. Brilliant.
But The Cove is never once a preachy or "tree-huggy" affair. Anyone with half a heart can see that these dolphins are being destroyed for no good reason, and the fact that the slaughter is allowed to continue is nothing short of sickening. Strong praise is due to director Psihoyos for remembering that, even though he has a stunning, shocking, tragic story to tell -- an audience still needs a human touch. And that touch is provided by Mr. O'Barry, who is a hero in every sense of the word. The former dolphin trainer helped to bring Flipper into the global consciousness, and as such he feels beholden to the creatures, and he'll stop at nothing to protect them from the brutal fishermen. The film itself is an act of heroism, as it takes us knee-deep into some rather dangerous activities behind enemy lines -- and the result is some footage that you must see to believe. It's not for the squeamish, but it's something you really should see. Just so you'll get a little outraged.
I've seen hundreds of horror movies in my time, and I've never seen anything quite as disturbing as the final sequences of The Cove. I'm betting that this powerful and seriously well-crafted documentary will cause a stir wherever it plays, and I certainly hope that the buzz leads to a massive controversy and, finally, some actual results on a global scale. Special note is also due to the beautiful underwater photography, the moody-yet-subtle score, and an editorial structure that must have taken half a year to put together. Like I said earlier, The Cove is not only a documentary that shares a tragic, fascinating story; it's one that might actually improve the world a little bit. And that's a testament to the power of quality documentary filmmaking, if you ask me.