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The Cove belongs to that subset of documentary films geared towards the creation of popular outrage at some form of grand injustice. It’s a rousing call to action against the wrongs visited on the dolphin populations captured by the fishermen of the small coastal village of Taiji, Japan, who are hired by global aquatic parks to find show animals and engaged in the illicit mass slaughter of the rejects. The film works as a morality tale, a thriller and more. It’s an indictment of the culture of captivity that implicitly condones these murders and the gripping story of a brave team of activists covertly fighting back.

At the center of director Louie Psihoyos’ story stands Ric O’Barry, once a central figure in the dolphin show world as the trainer of Flipper and now the leading anti-captivity activist. As the film begins he’s already persona non grata in Taiji, where he’s engaged in a decades-long campaign to stop their barbaric practices. But that doesn’t keep him from repeatedly returning, affixed in a mask or some other disguise, and working to expose the grievous crimes being perpetrated there. In The Cove, O’Barry and the filmmaker assemble a team comprised of other activists, expert divers and a Hollywood special effects veteran to infiltrate and covertly capture the secret murders being conducted in a cove off the coast.

Frequently unfolding at night, shot at times in night vision, and carried out amid the sinister attentions of town officials and other shady stalkers, the plan accrues significant tension as it progresses. Psihoyos fulfills the surest test of a documentarian’s makeup by keeping his camera rolling and never shying away from the classical nature of the espionage, despite his own personal risk and the larger issues at play. The audience is persistently made aware of the dangers at hand, the threats looming down a darkened road and those contained in the innocuous white car that seems to always be following them. The camerawork enhances the drama by speeding up at times and slowing down at others, opting for overhead shots and close-ups that provide both a larger sense of space and a vivid picture of the intense human cost of their dangerous activities.

The covert operation functions as the hook to draw viewers into the Grand Guignol tragedy that serves as Psihoyos’ real story. The film painstakingly subverts the common cultural perception of dolphins as joyful, lovable creatures content to spend their days and nights entertaining humans. O’Barry describes the characteristic bleating and seemingly sunny demeanor as indicators of distress and posits the culture of captivity for which he holds himself at least partially responsible to be one that’s fostered the gradual obliteration of a great species. The former trainer describes the day that changed his life – when one of his beloved dolphins died, purposefully (dolphins are not, he explains, automatic breathers) in his arms – with such conviction that it’s hard to dispute his assertion that we’ve collectively engaged in the suppression of a species as smart and self-aware as our own.

In one of the more superhuman feats in recent documentary filmmaking Psihoyos weaves a compelling political message into the suspense and gut wrenching emotions. The slaughtered dolphins are turned into cheap meat, misleadingly labeled and sold to supermarkets throughout Japan, where an unsuspecting population feasts upon food that’s dangerously high in Mercury and other poisons. In his depiction of the chain that connects Taiji to health crises in the population at large Psihoyos convincingly universalizes the urgent case for stopping the murders. They’re not just catastrophic for the dolphins being killed and the animal rights activists and conservationists of the world.

Further, scenes of the hearings of the comically ineffective International Whaling Commission lend a segment of the film the feel of a Michael Moore like work of populist muckraking when O’Barry angrily interrupts the proceedings. They’re the final piece in the complex narrative puzzle, varying in scope and tone, which comprises Psihoyos’ essential piece of work. Here is a documentary aimed at the heart and the brain, making use of a potpourri of approaches in its heartbreaking depiction of the moral enervation of men.

Grade: A-

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