Late in the infectiously frisky documentary The Cove, an older man calmly gate-crashes an international conference on whaling with a TV screen strapped to his chest, showing bloody images of the mass slaughter of dolphins in a cove off the coast of Japan. It’s a show-stopping publicity stunt by dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry, and also one act of an ongoing ritual of public penance by this one-time hunter and trainer of dolphins for the 1960s television series Flipper. O’Barry came to understand that dolphins cutting up on TV or in aquariums around the world may provide oceans of fun for audiences but that it’s torture for the sociable, intelligent mammals forcibly separated from their fellows and habitat.
The sleepy-eyed but intense O’Barry — who slips into Japan in silly disguises to avoid being arrested or attacked by irate fisherman at the cove where dolphins are culled for export or killed — is the perfect star for this forthrightly activist film. But he’s far from the only performance artist in the rousing blend of pop entertainment, faux-thriller, horror movie and naked agitprop that is The Cove, a benign feat of manipulation designed to make you rue every minute you spent ooh-ing and aah-ing at SeaWorld. It’s also designed to make you call for the blood of the Japanese government, which lobbies against international efforts to protect small crustaceans and secretively protects the fishermen who trap thousands of dolphins a year to sell for export or kill for, as it turns out, mercury-contaminated meat that shows up not only in delicatessens around the world but in the school lunches of Japanese children.
“You’re an activist or an inactivist,” says director Louie Psihoyos, co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. He possesses the instincts and righteous rage of Michael Moore but without Moore’s bile or self-importance. The Cove is the exuberantly theatrical and often funny story of Psihoyos and his team of overgrown authority-averse schoolboys (and one tender girl). This self-described “Ocean’s Eleven” includes a stuntman and a gung-ho team of designers from Industrial Light and Magic, who create rocks with hidden cameras to plant around the cove and record the mass murder of these lovely mammals. Lovely is the operative word. Skillful and hugely entertaining as it is, I’m not sure The Cove would be as potent as it is if the subject were, say, walruses. Dolphins are the Goldie Hawns of endangered species: bright, playful, cute — and, by some freak of nature, they appear to be grinning most of the time. O’Barry laments the anthropomorphization that has turned dolphins into clowns in aquariums around the world, but he’s not above ascribing human motivation to them. When one of the dolphins stops breathing in his arms, he calls its death a suicide. The Cove is enchanting, horrifying, rousing; but it comes close to making the case that dolphins should be saved because they’re cute and breathe air. Where does that leave the overfished salmon I went home to poach?
(ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark)