Review: The Cove

mandy with dolphins.jpg
Courtesy The Cove.

For the most part, eco-documentaries follow a pretty narrow pattern; either they’re well funded and a little boring or guerrilla style and probably a bit nauseating, but either way you’re supposed to be so outraged you get out of your seat and punch the richest asshole you can find. That’s the gist. But there’s often a disconnect between the images of the film and the actions of the audience because, ecologically, problems tend to be so big any given person feels powerless. Large corporations are to blame, more often than not; faceless entities that majority-vote to dip seals in oil as a goof. But The Cove breaks all of these conventions (read: constraints) by using high-quality. high-budget techniques to bring the audience to an absolutely terrifying, horrifying, and mystifying conclusion. And the bad guys are real, and some even have names like Private Space.

In essence, The Cove is a pro-dolphin, pro-oceanic film surrounding a single town in Japan where unspeakable atrocities are taking place, with little or no information being leaked beyond the city limits. The chief crusader, as it were, is longtime Flipper trainer and vocal dolphin advocate Richard O’Barry, who spent a good portion of his life getting rich off of the captivity and subjugation of dolphins but now devotes his life to helping them live as free as possible. And once his attention is turned to Taiji, Japan, where show dolphins are ‘harvested’, it’s clear he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Essentially, thousands of dolphins off the coast of Taiji are herded inland by fishermen, only to be cordoned off and reviewed for their potential as show dolphins in aquariums all across the world. After the small handful are selected to be sold at $150,000 apiece, the rest are, well, murdered. The Cove does a good job of building up to this moment, infusing education and intensity into the preceding frames, but you simply can’t be prepared to see exactly what happens inside the natural cove. Of all the graphic and disturbing images - and there are many - the most effective frame is from an underwater camera, showing blue waters that almost instantaneously turn into a deep crimson red, and remain that way for hours. You will gasp, twitch and make sudden movements in your seat, and at times probably look away. That means The Cove is working.

However, one could venture to say that this is not even the most compelling part of the film. In fact, the efforts needed just to get those horrific shots are really the backbone, infusing it with a murky sense of espionage that, in scope and execution, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen outside of a Steven Soderbergh film. Once the team decides to try to document what goes on at the cove (and directly endanger themselves as a result), the hunt is on for the proper manpower and equipment to pull it off. Insert world-class free divers, former military experts, and a guy from Industrial Light & Magic (seriously), and pretty quickly the operation goes from unwanted to undercover, and the film starts to blow the doors off of any other documentary this year.

It’s easy to see why so much has already been positively written about The Cove; it is equal parts tugged heart strings and those cords that Tom Cruise hangs from in Mission: Impossible. And it also sort of means there’s something for everyone, except maybe children. But the absolute coup de grace for the film comes from the original hero himself, Richard O’Barry. His tireless dedication to fighting an industry he helped create, and the stunning moments when it all seems to sit so heavy inside him, are more moving than any other images in the film. With O’Barry, the capacity for compassion is boundless.

The Cove is a well-made film that succeeds exactly where it should: it frustrates you, shocks you, and weakens your immunity to the horrors around the world. While it may not jump off the screen in the way Man On Wire does, it is certainly easy to be affected by the sharp imagery, compelling story and absolute tenacity of a group of people who believe so strongly that what they’re doing is right, they will do whatever it takes to see things change.


The Cove won the Audience award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently slated for a July 31st release date at The Landmark and Arclight.