First things first: Though there are decidedly graphic and painful moments in this documentary about the annual killing of thousands of dolphins in a small Japanese fishing town, this is by no means an unwatchably bloody movie. Rather, it's an artful look at a brutal subject that balances the lurid moments with breathtaking suspense and provocative entertainment.
The backstory for this documentary, which was directed and photographed by renowned magazine photographer Louie Psihoyos, is that a brutal slaughter of more than 20,000 dolphins per year takes place in a tiny, beautiful town in Southern Japan called Taiji. The dolphins are rounded up by fishing boats and driven into a small cove, where marine researchers and entertainers take their pick of the pods for their marine parks and sanctuaries; the remaining dolphins are then killed with spears in a massacre that turns the waters of the cove murderously red.
Were it not for a man named Ric O'Barry, who was the original trainer of the lovable dolphins from the 1960s TV show Flipper, chances are no one would ever have known that dolphins are killed in droves every year in this town. But O'Barry, now 68, feels personally responsible for the popularity of trained dolphin shows. He's spent the past 30 years trying to wipe out the captive-dolphin industry, which he says drives the dolphin-killings in places like Taiji. O'Barry, who comes off as a bit of a lovable zealot, convinced Psihoyos that the killing must be brought to an end, and The Cove documents the sometimes harrowing, sometimes comical path he and a crack team of photo-geek colleagues take to expose Taiji's gruesome tradition to the world.
And therein lies some of the movie's incongruity. It is crafted more like a slick Hollywood adventure than an agenda-driven documentary--due, no doubt, to the backing of guys such as Netscape entrepreneur Jim Clark, the executive producer--which makes it highly entertaining. However, there are times when the subplot revolving around the creation of the high-tech hidden cameras, underwater sound systems, and flying camera-carrying blimps the special-ops team uses to film the carefully guarded dolphin-killing process feels to overtake the main story.
Which is not to say that kind of diversion from the blood and gore is not welcome--in fact, it's probably what makes The Cove actually work. In fact, if Psihoyos and company had made an earnest and pleading movie that focused solely on the agonizing and shocking aspects of the subject, it would likely be written off as a piece of environmental-activist agitprop. Instead, they've managed to make a movie about an ugly subject that's never too precious and never too visually abusive--instead, it's a little bit sad, a little bit humorous, very moving, and, overall, touchingly human.