At the onset of Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, people arrive in what appears to be a quaint, tourist-oriented little town, with an economy divided between fishing and exploiting the cuteness of dolphins—an animal for which the town is known. Everywhere you look there are dolphin-themed boat rides and fanciful dolphin statuary. Smiling, happy dolphin images are so prevalent in this place that you might think it was designed by Flipper himself (or herself as reality had it). But why are the police following these people? Why is there a part of the town that is off-limits and kept carefully guarded by the authorities and local fishermen? What is the dark secret of what goes on in the titular cove that visitors aren’t allowed to see?
It sounds like the setup for a horror film about a secret vampire cult, or possibly a science-fiction opus involving strange mutation experiments with radioactive materials. Well, actually, The Cove is a lot like those types of movies—except that it’s an activist-based documentary. The film gives up the secret of the cove early on, which is probably wise, since anyone going to see The Cove almost certainly knows that it’s a movie about carefully unpublicized dolphin slaughter taking place in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji. So without missing a beat, The Cove turns into a combination horror picture and espionage thriller—with background material mixed in along the way. The result of this approach is perhaps the shrewdest activist documentary in a long while.
Still, The Cove is a movie with a problem. It’s clearly an activist documentary: Please note that there is a difference between a documentary and an activist documentary. Man on Wire (2008) is a documentary, but apart from thumbing its nose at authority, it has no agenda. It can hardly be termed activist. The Cove definitely has an agenda. It wants to outrage you over the slaughter, over the secrecy, over the government cover-up of it all. It wants to arouse you into taking an active role in trying to stop all this. That’s fine. Film as a tool for social awareness and change is perfectly valid. The problem is we know the film’s agenda going in. As a result, most of the audience for the movie is already at the very least concerned about the subject. Unless the film can go beyond the already converted and the (let’s face it) relatively small contingent of big-screen documentary fans, its accomplishments may be little more than academic. I hope that isn’t the case, because the film is too good to be relegated to that, and its story—however one-sided its presentation may be—deserves to be told.
The film’s story—presenting just how the filmmakers and activists manage to get the footage that shows exactly what takes place in the cove—is fascinating in itself. There are times when the business of hidden cameras in fake rocks feels like something straight out of a 1960s thriller, and the film manages to generate a surprising amount of suspense. It also manages to deliver the horrific climax we’re expecting (how could it not?), but it does so without playing up the grotesqueness of it all any more than by merely presenting the footage. (It could have easily editorialized itself into a corner.) It tops the climax off with an admittedly manipulative ending that suggests the truth of the film will make a difference. Some may object to this, but I believe the film earns this moment.
Is The Cove perfect? Not in my opinion. It gets a little too quasi-mystical for my taste with all its dolphin-human connections. I understand Richard O’Barry’s take on the matter—and the guilt he bears over having caught and trained the dolphins for the Flipper TV show, which created the mania for dolphins as entertainment. (The dolphin slaughter is only part of the film’s agenda, but it’s the selling point and the most horrific.) I grasp dolphin trainer O’Barry’s humanizing of the animals—and that of others in the group—but it runs the risk of making it all look a little flakey from the outside. (I actually groaned twice.) This, however, is a relatively small gripe that in no way reduces my recommendation of the film. The Cove is a movie that should be seen. Rated PG-13 for disturbing content.