The Cove (2009)
I never really wanted to watch the documentary, The Cove, and judging by its anemic box-office gross, I wasn’t the only one. A movie about dolphin slaughter felt like it was going to be a hard chunk of medicine, and I can’t really blame anybody who read about this acclaimed Sundance doc and said, “You know, I don’t feel like spending eight bucks to watch dolphins get harpooned to death.” I can’t argue with that and it was with great trepidation that I put the DVD into my player, hiding behind a blanket, dreading the animal cruelty and self-righteousness that would soon wait. And then a funny thing happened. In the first five minutes I really got into the movie, my nervous tension disappeared, and I was captivated by one of the best-edited and most thrilling movies of the year. For the squeamish, rest assured, the dolphin death footage isn’t graphic and used rather sparingly and tastefully. This is not just a PETA snuff film.
The Cove has two storylines at play that converge with a unified goal. The first explores the life of Ric O’Barry, the world’s premier dolphin trainer responsible for all those playful porpoises on TV’s Flipper (he even lived in the TV family’s house by the dock). It’s because of that popular TV show that the dolphin craze began where people wanted to see them do tricks and people wanted to swim with the cute dolphins. Sea parks sprouted up around the world and many dolphins were sold into captivity. O’Barry then drastically changed his mind about dolphins living in captivity after the death of one of the Flippers. Dolphins need to consciously breath, so they can actually hold their breath and die, which is what happened. The Flipper dolphin committed “suicide” in O’Barry’s arms, or so he says (he may be projecting a bit of his own guilt). He has been fighting ever since for dolphins to be freed and often O’Barry gets arrested for his activism efforts.
O’Barry’s biggest target is Taiji, Japan. It is this small coastal town that supplies dolphins to most of the world. Researchers and entertainment trainers will take their pick of the litter and the rest aren’t so lucky. The remaining dolphins get transferred to a small inlet where coastline bystanders cannot see and where large “Keep Out” signs are met with barbed wire. Then the waters run red. Tens of thousands of dolphins are slaughtered every fall and O’Barry has been trying to get the word out for years but has been stymied by the local fishermen, the meat corporations, and the Japanese government. Director Louie Psihoyos, a critical member of the Ocean Preservation Society, intended to make a film about depleting ocean reefs and intended to have O’Barry be one part of an overall bigger picture. Then, while traveling in Taiji, he became convinced that the real story was exposing the secret dolphin killings and why what goes on in that deadly cove matters to the rest of Japan and the world.
What hooked me was that The Cove is structured like a real-life espionage thriller. Psihoyos and his technical crew wanted to go the legal route but were blocked by opposing forces. So he assembles a team of experts to infiltrate the Taiji cove and document what exactly is going on there. He recruits the best deep diver who can plunge to record-breaking depths on a single breath of air. He recruits a model maker at special effects studio ILM to make convincing rocks that will house hidden cameras. They recruit a man who knows all about cameras and body imaging technology. They even get an expert on flying toy helicopters so they can plant a camera on one. The director says it himself on camera, that he was gathering a real-life Ocean’s Eleven team. The tone of the movie follows suit, making for some great suspense. As soon as O’Barry enters Taiji, he’s tailed by several police officers and they even interrogate him in his hotel lobby to ascertain the purpose of his visit (caught on hidden camera). The billion-dollar dolphin entertainment/meat industry hires people to do nothing else but to film O’Barry himself, keeping track of his movements and trying to provoke an emotional reaction to disparage his cause and boot him from town. We then chart how far the connections go, all the way through to Japanese government officials bribing other Pacific island nations to join their fight to overturn whaling laws. It’s fascinating and frustrating as hell to watch.
Psihoyos is a rather accomplished filmmaker in his own right, spicing up an intriguing tale with some visual pizzazz and a great sense of pacing. This thing just flies by. It’s strange to say that a documentary about killing dolphins is one of the most gripping thrillers of the year, but there it is. This is an impeccably crafted opinion piece with a dash of espionage excitement. The movie is indignant, yes, but refrains from being self-righteous or condescending. At no point did I feel beaten over the head with some activist propaganda, though the film is clearly one-sided. Psihoyos manages to weave in a lot of useful information. I was dreading the actual dolphin slaughter footage even though, from a structural standpoint, that was the climax of the movie people have been waiting for. The footage is mostly at long angles, though you do see Japanese fishermen repeatedly jabbing harpoons into dolphin shapes. The most disturbing moments are earlier when a mortally wounded dolphin spaces past the nets and tries to swim for freedom. It’s spitting blood and wildly trying to break free but it eventually drowns. The final image of the hard-won footage is the blood-soaked shores of the cove, which are a deep, unsettling red that reminds you of a full-on Biblical plague. An easy plea to emotional appeals, perhaps, but effective nonetheless. I have no shame in admitting that The Cove put me to tears on three separate occasions.
So is there really a difference here between killing and eating dolphins and the West’s industry of killing and eating cows? Is this all just a matter of cultural insensitivity? That’s a harder question. Which animals do we draw the line at eating? Is there a moral disparity between eating a hamburger and eating a dolphin, or eating a cat or a dog? I don’t know. Personally, given my Western biases and everything, I become repulsed when it comes to inhumane treatment to animals and when self-aware creatures are used for food. I am a content meat-eater but that doesn’t mean I want to snack on a dog sandwich. Certain animals are just more self-aware than others, which muddy the moral waters. When an animal reaches that sense of awareness then it becomes an even stronger ethical dilemma when it comes to killing them, because they are more cognizant of what is happening and the life being taken from them. It may all sound like semantics to some, but that’s my personal stance. To literally quote George Orwell’s famous novel: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” That may seem hypocritical to people but I’d argue it’s a reigning opinion among a majority of Americans. The counter argument is that Westerners know that cows are being led to the slaughter, whereas the Japanese are purposely kept in the dark about the nature of the dolphin massacres. To make matters worse, dolphin meat is incredibly high in levels of mercury and the meat is labeled as other fish. The majority of the Japanese do not know that they are consuming poisoned dolphin meat. Americans at least know what they’re biting into (the jury’s still out with hot dogs).
The Cove only gives you the Western perspective on the subject because that’s what fits its agenda. It does take a few swipes at the arguments for dolphin hunting. The Japanese government views them as pests needed to be dealt with and blames the porpoises for declining fish levels, which to any rational thinking person would sound absurd. Which seems like the more likely scenario: pollution and over fishing lead to declining levels, or the sea creatures that have lived on the planet for millions of years are now to blame? The other token argument is that whale and dolphin killing is a part of traditional Japanese historical culture. This might hold true for some people; however, upon some minor research you find that the whaling tradition goes back only a couple centuries, no further than it did for European countries that have given up the practice.
But what the movie really fails to explore is why. Why do the Japanese fishermen, when offered the same money NOT to kill dolphins, decide to keep killing them? What is the psychology at foot in Taiji that links the town with annual slaughters? It’s a shame that Psihoyos devoted the entire bulk of the film to getting the footage. The focus of The Cove is a bit limited but I understand why. There needed to be an attainable goal: get the secret footage and spread the word. The movie is too entertaining and harrowing to really knock its limited scope, but The Cove could have been a much fuller depiction of this bloody reality.
The Cove builds a compelling, if one-sided, case condemning the ongoing actions of Taiji, Japan and the greater government. The conspiracy unfolds layer by layer and the movie ends up rallying others to action (O’Barry says you’re either an activist or an “inactivist”). I don’t know if anything will actually change now that the footage is out there, but at least people can be more aware of the annual dolphin slaughter. And after a year of wrangling, it appears that The Cove will be released in Japan this spring. Let’s see what kind of response comes out then and whether the Japanese are willing to pay the yen equivalent of eight bucks to watch dolphins die.
Nate’s Grade: A