The Cove has long been on my list of movies to watch, if only for how much controversy it created when it was first released. I have to say, I can see what the uproar was about; sentient beings slaughtered for no real purpose, Japanese fishermen portrayed as heartless assholes, and a septuagenarian activist being arrested all make for a compelling, stranger than fiction type story.
The burning question in this Cinéma Vérité documentary is whether the filmmakers will be able to document what goes on in a sheltered cove in the Japanese town of Taiji. The stakes are high; if the team is caught doing even the slightest thing wrong they will be arrested and banned from the town of Taiji. Through interviews, footage collected by a series of activists, scenes of the filmmakers working through how to achieve their goal, and the coveted cove footage itself, a grisly story is unraveled to a horrifying conclusion.
Waters red with blood seems like a far-fetched biblical notion, but in the cove we see that for the fishermen of Taiji, it is a casual reality. Of course, compelling imagery like this was set to be the climax of the film, but it was still entertaining and informative to watch the filmmakers brainstorm about how to properly camouflage their cameras, how to evade Taiji security, and where to prioritize filming. At points, The Cove becomes an environmental heist film, where evasion and counter-intelligence are key.
However, The Cove also does a nice job of laying out the history of dolphin round-ups and slaughter. Richard O’Barry makes a particularly compelling character with his extensive resume of dolphin training and experience. It’s these credentials that make the obviously biased film seem reasonable; Mr. O’Barry’s presence assures the audience that both sides of the debate have been considered (and even lived). Plus, who can resist a penitent man at the end of his life?
As we learn that dolphin intelligence is comparable to ours, hear that one of the dolphins who played the beloved Flipper committed suicide because she could no longer stand being in captivity, and see a dolphin fighting to breathe and escape despite fatal wounds, whatever iciness in our hearts regarding dolphins is melted (really, was there ever any ice there at all?), and we are firmly behind Richard O’Barry, silently cheering him on as in the final scenes he confronts the International Whaling Commission and the people of Japan.
The makers of this documentary perfectly edited their story to build upon itself and cause considerable emotional investment. I highly recommend it, though when you watch The Cove, be sure to take a few minutes afterwards to enjoy that determined, hopeful spirit that the filmmakers so carefully crafted for their conclusion. Disappointingly, aside from garnering awards and attention, this documentary did little in real life to help the plight of cetaceans migrating past Taiji, a cold reminder that all the inspiration in the world is worthless if it doesn’t lead to action.