“The Cove” is one of the most moving films of the year. Though nature documentaries are often subdued, “The Cove” is a welcome exception; it’s a gripping film that’s as exciting and emotional as any big-budget blockbuster, and that’s what most will notice first. But the film also succeeds at what counts in a documentary: it presents a convincing argument that makes the audience care about its issue.
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The film’s core narrative features a team of marine activists trying to break into a secluded lagoon in Taiji, Japan to plant cameras and monitor the site where fishermen murder an average of 2,000 dolphins every year. Ric O’Barry, the crew’s leader, quips that the operation turns into a real-life “Ocean’s Eleven.” The team of specialists must work together like jewel thieves to break through security measures unnoticed, hounded by police and angry fishermen all the while.
One thing that adds to the film’s staggering impact is how the injustices in Japan keep mounting higher. The main atrocity is the slaughter of dolphins for meat in Taiji. But dolphin meat is also unsafe to eat, contaminated with highly toxic levels of mercury. Even more shocking, the Japanese government handed out free dolphin meat as a part of a compulsory public school lunch program. If that isn’t repulsive enough, the film shows how Japan bribes bankrupt nations into supporting its whaling initiatives.
Threaded between these accusations are stories of people who have been touched by encounters with dolphins, from O’Barry’s past experiences training dolphins for the iconic “Flipper” TV show to a surfer’s tale of being rescued by a dolphin from a shark attack. The film explains that dolphins are self-aware and display a wide range of emotions. By extension, viewers see the problems inherent in dolphin captivity. Not only does “The Cove” decry the slaughter of dolphins, but it also serves to educate audiences about dolphins in general.
The central action sequences are chaotic, with quickly edited multi-camera setups including night and thermal vision imagery. They’re occasionally hard to follow, but the crew’s radio exchanges help orient the audience. Set against this action is the kind of lurking, bass-heavy music used in modern thrillers. These covert operations are the most suspenseful parts of the story, while other segments are more educational or emotional.
One of the most affecting moments, captured by a hidden camera, is shot underwater in the dreaded lagoon. At first, there’s no subject in the frame. Pained dolphin cries dominate the soundtrack, and suddenly the pristine teal water turns to a deep shade of red. This is one image the mostly dialogue-driven film lets speak for itself.
As a documentary, “The Cove” is nearly flawless. Not only does it present a convincing argument against dolphin hunting and captivity, but it also entertains and inspires while it educates. And unlike most documentaries, it tells the audience how they can help. There’s a petition to stop the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji available through http://www.takepart.com/thecove/, and it already has over 45,000 signatures. If anything, this enthusiastic response shows how powerful “The Cove” truly is.