(I don’t normally review DVDs, but this started out as an entry in the soon-to-be-revived Movies You May Have Missed column and then it kind of blew up. Everything I say here is about the movie itself and not an opinion of the audio/video quality of the DVD or any of the extras it might have.)
Because it is a slickly entertaining button-pusher and because it has a message we can all get behind – dolphins are our friends – The Cove is a seductive bit of activist enviro-tainment that is almost sure to move you. I guarantee you will be saddened and enraged by this exposé of the secretive dolphin slaughter that occurs in a tiny Japanese fishing village each year. You’ll also be entertained by the spy thriller-like story of the admittedly brave group of individuals who seek to bring the story to light.
Unfortunately, that’s about all The Cove ever accomplishes.
It moves and entertains and maybe convinces a few people to donate some money to the Oceanic Preservation Society (the non-profit eco-organization behind the documentary and whose executive director directed the film), but it repeatedly slights fact in favor of manipulation and argument in favor of entertainment. In the process, it waters down what could have been a powerful call to action and it neuters an opportunity to educate mainstream audiences about the potential damage we’re doing to the world’s oceans. Worse still, it lets those of us outside of Japan off the hook. By inspiring us to anger and outrage without making us think about the deeper issues at hand, The Cove allows us to feel like concerned citizens of the world without asking us to sacrifice a single thing.
The focal point of the story is Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer on the popular 1960s TV show Flipper. Believing that the death in his arms of one of the animal actors was a kind of suicide, O’Barry dedicated his life to freeing the lovable sea mammals wherever they are held in captivity. It is this mission that brings him to Taji, the small coastal village in Japan where fishermen round up dolphins by the hundreds and thousands each year and auction them off to aquatic theme parks all over the world. As O’Barry ultimately discovers however, Taji hides an even more horrible secret. Instead of releasing the unwanted dolphins back into the wild, the fisherman herd them into a nearby cove protected from the prying eyes of the general public. There they are viciously murdered and their meat is sold to Japanese grocery stores as a less-expensive alternative to whale.
The bulk of The Cove documents the espionage-tinged mission of O’Barry and his team as they try to outmaneuver (and sometimes outrun) the belligerent fishermen and town officials blocking them from recording the slaughter that O’Barry knows is taking place. It’s an entertaining and suspenseful high wire act worthy of a James Bond film, complete with hidden microphones, night vision equipment and cameras disguised as rocks.
It’s dramatic stuff, but despite the dribs and drabs of information that are dropped in between the action, The Cove only teases us with important questions – questions about the Japanese whaling industry, the dwindling health of our oceans and the high mercury content of dolphin meat for example – before dropping them in favor of easy sensationalism. In the end, the film takes full advantage of the audience’s naturally pro-dolphin sensibilities with a climax composed of the horrifying footage that the team is ultimately able to capture.
Aside from the spear-wielding fishermen (some of whom seem to be enjoying themselves), there is no healthy human being alive who won’t be sickened and outraged by the images of dolphin mass-murder splashed on the screen or by the sounds of their screams recorded by underwater microphones as the ocean is turned red with their blood. Unfortunately, it is blind outrage without an underlying call to meaningful action. It’s a feature length public service announcement that makes a statement without asking us to change our behavior in any significant way.
The Cove frustrates because it touches on a number of fascinating stories while contenting itself with the documentary equivalent of slowing down at the scene of a traffic accident for a better look. One story is O’Barry himself. A fascinating and tragic figure, he’s a haunted man doing penance for his early life in the dolphin slave trade. The irony is that if wasn’t for the work of men like O’Barry on TV shows like Flipper and in theme parks like SeaWorld, the horror that unfolds near the end of the The Cove wouldn’t be called murder, it would be called fishing. We wouldn’t have any big ideas about dolphin intelligence. Killing them would stir up no more anger than do the short brutish lives lived by chickens, pigs and cows before they’re cut apart and served at Western dinner tables.
This raises a much bigger question that The Cove is afraid to even approach: If you’re shocked by what is happening to dolphins in Japan, are you really comfortable with a hierarchy of meat eating? Is it ok to eat cows but not dolphins or is it simply convenient for us to do so? The billion or so people who practice Hinduism might disagree. For vegetarians, this film doesn’t even scratch the surface of the world’s food problems.
Though flawed, this is not worthless film. Some good might come of it. If it unites world opinion enough to pressure the Japanese government into banning the practice of dolphin slaughter, then it has done a tiny yet symbolic bit of good in the bigger environmental picture. If it helps raise a little money for an environmentally concerned non-profit along the way, so much the better, but don’t mistake it for a great documentary or even an especially strong work of activism. The Cove is a grisly bit of rabble rousing and little more.
The Cove comes to DVD on Tuesday, December 8.