The Cove, a spectacularly compelling documentary that was as well financed as it is well intentioned, starts with a glimpse of seeming paranoia. A man in his late 60s is driving, anxiously checking his mirrors and talking about the people he's sure are pursuing him. He's wearing a surgical mask and gives the impression of Jason Bourne as a possibly batty senior citizen, still dodging bad guys and, maybe, swine flu.
It turns out he's Ric O'Barry, a forgotten face from 1960s pop culture. As a young man, he captured and trained Flipper--or rather, the five dolphins that played that beloved cetacean. He became a passionate opponent of keeping dolphins in captivity after the death of one of the Flippers, a bottlenose named Kathy. Now he's a crusader on a mission: In a small, isolated cove in Taiji, Japan, where O'Barry has become a part-time resident (and pest), thousands of dolphins are being trapped and slaughtered every year. Since 2003, O'Barry has been desperately trying to expose and stop this legal but secretive practice.
The irony is that O'Barry believes he's partly to blame. The dolphins that are killed are the leftovers from searches to find performers for aquatic parks, places that might not exist if hadn't been for Flipper mania. It's a lucrative trade. O'Barry says a trained dolphin can sell for as much as $150,000. In Taiji, the public is welcome to watch the selection of dolphins by trainers. What most people aren't allowed to see is what happens afterward, when the ones that didn't make the cut are moved to the next rockbound inlet over and stabbed to death by fishermen. It's legal to fish for dolphins in Japan, and the filmmakers estimate that 23,000 dolphins are "harvested" there annually. The dilemma faced by activists, including O'Barry, Greenpeace and, ultimately, the director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, was how to get visual evidence of these massacres to build support for protecting dolphins as whales are protected. The area is heavily guarded, by fishermen and police. Taking even a cliffside peek entails trespassing.
A former National Geographic photographer who now leads the Oceanic Preservation Society, Psihoyos learned about Taiji from O'Barry in 2005. He was horrified. "I told him, We'll fix this," Psihoyos says. Easier said than done. But if O'Barry embodies guilt-ridden heartbreak (his mea culpa feels like the theme-park world's version of Robert McNamara's in The Fog of War), the tall and handsome Psihoyos is the picture of confidence. He's also friends with Netscape billionaire Jim Clark, a very good thing to be if you're trying to fund a documentary. (Clark executive-produced it.)
Psihoyos refers to the team he recruits, which includes a moldmaker from Industrial Light & Magic and a pair of champion deep-sea free divers, as being like Ocean's Eleven. He's kidding. Sort of. The goal is a lot worthier than emptying the vault at a Las Vegas casino, but in terms of style, that's what The Cove is emulating. Characters are introduced with a flourish--the daredevil, the soulful surfer, the bumbling cops--and Psihoyos takes the George Clooney role. (He's got the tan and the big white teeth.) There's time-lapse photography, footage shot on infrared film and some nail-biting moments that are milked for melodrama. The Cove is slick and smart and, in its real-life urgency, puts Hollywood capers like Mission: Impossible to shame.
And, crucially, it delivers. This is like seeing baby seals clubbed to death, except that as adorable as baby seals are, no one has yet made a case for their being potentially smarter than humans, which is exactly what The Cove does for dolphins. To watch bleeding dolphins struggle for their last breath, to actually hear their agony, is devastating. Even if you would never eat dolphin meat, you feel culpable just for being part of the species that can teach another mammal tricks, reward it with snacks and pats and at the same time be capable of getting up at dawn to poke it to death with spears.
So what does this mean for the Japanese? There's something about the way the fishermen look, pulling hard on their cigarettes as they stare down at the reddened waters of the cove, that suggests the task isn't exactly easy for them. Some would argue that dolphin-fishing is their cultural right and that foreigners should stay out of their business (i.e., the sale of dolphins for meat, at about $600 a head). The film counters with a fleet of scientists flown in (more money!) to unearth evidence that no one should be eating dolphin meat; samples were toxic with mercury. The filmmakers hope The Cove will spark a change in Japanese policy, but they'll need help from audiences willing to do more than applaud. (At Sundance, the film won the Audience Award for documentary.)
David Bowie's "Heroes" plays over the closing credits, and with its lyrics about swimming like dolphins and the line "We can be heroes just for one day," it is an apt choice. There's an element of self-aggrandizement--we sense the filmmakers consider themselves heroes already. I wouldn't argue against that. This is a philanthropic mission, and Psihoyos and his team get their heartbreaking work done. You just hope the hint of boastfulness doesn't dilute the message, because when you're mopping up your tears after The Cove, you want this film to make a difference.