If someone told you that The Cove was a really, really good– but really, really depressing– documentary about dolphins being slaughtered in Japan, you probably wouldn’t leap at the chance to see it (sic transit gloria, and all that). But Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove is much, much more than that: it plays out like a real-life cloak-and-dagger mission, one where the stakes are as high as they come (everyone involved put their life on the line to secure some of the footage seen here) and the methods are just as elaborate and clever as the ones that George Clooney put into play with his crew in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series. Besides that, though, The Cove is a film that everyone– yes, including you– needs to see at least once. Read on to find out why after the jump, folks.
Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove is– let’s face it– not a pleasant film to watch. Before I’d even seen the film, I knew that I was going to be exposed to some truly troubling material with Psihoyos’ documentary, and now that I’ve seen it, I find myself in the strange position of feeling obligated (in a good way) to recommend the film while also feeling terrible about asking anyone to watch it: The Cove is disturbing, horrific, one of the most depressing film-watching experiences that I’ve ever had. It’s also one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, an important document concerning the mass dolphin-killings going on in Wakayama, Japan (Taiji, specifically) that virtually everyone should see at least once. The question is: can you handle what the film’s got to say?
Before we go any further, allow me to assure you that The Cove isn’t your average documentary. When you learn that The Cove is a hit-piece of sorts directed at the brutal Japanese fisherman that have been slaughtering dolphins by the thousands– if not millions– in Taiji over the past generation, you tend to think that the film will play out in a certain way: there’ll be talking head interviews with the people that (rightfully) condemn this behavior, there’ll be shocking footage of dolphins being killed, there’ll be some stern finger-wagging at the Japanese government. All of that happens in The Cove, to be sure, but it’s all secondary to the main plotline in the film, which is…the making of The Cove.
See, Psihoyos wasn’t able to just amble into Taiji and start filming the slaughter of dolphins. The local government has been covering up the slaughter for years, part of a conspiracy that seems to have tentacles that stretch into the highest echelons of the Japanese government (and, ominously, beyond), and Japan isn’t exactly a freewheeling, hey-come-and-shoot-some-footage-here-whenever-ya-feel-like-it kinda place. Psihoyos had to literally risk his life to get some of the footage in this film, and the lengths that he went to in order to obtain that footage– all of which we see in excruciating detail throughout the film, and all of which is really, really compelling stuff– are absolutely incredible: he puts cameras into phony rocks (constructed by the geniuses at ILM, incidentally), he and his crew don disguises, they secretly record conversations with members of the local government. The crew itself is a marvel, with each member providing a different service for the team. At one point, one of the team members compares their ragtag group to Danny Ocean’s crew in Ocean’s Eleven, and it’s not an exaggeration: these guys really are playing elaborate spy-games, and their adventures really are like a real-life Ocean’s Eleven heist.
Anyway, most of the film revolves around Ric O’Barry, who was once a very popular American television star on Flipper, the weekly adventure show about a dolphin that…actually, what did Flipper do? Solve mysteries? Get into hijinks? Foil crimes? All of the above? I’ve never seen an episode of Flipper, but of course I’m familiar with the name. In fact, most people are familiar with the name “Flipper”, and it’s because of that association– and the enduring popularity of the show, even if it does only exist amongst die-hard fans and nostalgia-geeks– that O’Barry reels so responsible to the anti-dolphin-killing movement.
We meet O’Barry right at the beginning of the film. He’s driving a van with Psyihoyos’ crew packed inside, all of them ducking down whenever a cop drives by. O’Barry tells the camera that he’s not wanted in Taiji, that the local fisherman and the government (we get the idea that these two are interconnected heavily thanks to a) corruption and b) the massive part, nearly total part that fishing plays in Taiji’s economy) would be happy to see him dead. In the beginning, we think he’s exaggerating (as does Psihoyos), but soon enough we learn that he speaks the truth.
Put very basically, there’s a large network of fisherman in Taiji that hunt, trap, and kill dolphins. Some of them– the “good” ones– get auctioned off to buyers, people that own marine parks all over the world. The other ones aren’t as lucky. There are laws in place against this sort of thing, but it hasn’t stopped the fishermen in Taiji from running rampant on the waters, and though they’re secretive about what they’re doing in the titular cove, it seems like a very poorly-kept secret. O’Barry wants to expose this secret, and so he teams up with Psihoyos and his crew to get incriminating footage of the fishermen at work. That’s where all the Ocean’s Eleven-style shenanigans come into play, and– as I mentioned before– the bulk of the film is spent watching them put their plan into action. It all leads up to some truly horrific, unforgettable, jaw-dropping footage of the fishermen killing dolphins in the cove. It is not an exaggeration to say that once you’ve seen this footage, you will never forget Psihoyos’ film or the message it delivers.
And what effect has The Cove had? Were these guys able to change anything? By the end of the film, has the slaughter of the dolphins been stopped, or at the very least stymied? You’re going to have to watch the film to find out, but I suspect that those of you with a cynical mindset already know the answers to these questions. I’ll say this, though: even if the killing of dolphins continues for another 100 years, Psihoyos and his crew are real-life superheroes, and just the fact that they’ve done all this work to spread the word about what’s happening in Taiji is to be applauded. These guys have bigger balls than I’ll ever possess.
Because the film plays out like a real-life spy game, it’s immensely entertaining to watch even if the subject matter is pervasively ominous and ugly. Because the film’s been shot on handheld cameras, hidden cameras, and a bunch of other decidedly low-def sources, it’s not the best-looking film that I’ve ever seen on Blu-ray, but– all things considered– I think I’m happier that it wasn’t in sharp detail, particularly the footage of the dolphins being butchered. The video’s good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not necessary that you purchase this film on Blu-ray (and purchase it you should): this one’s good enough on DVD, unless you’re just determined to spend your money on nothing but Blu-rays from here on out.
There are a good amount of extras included on the Blu-ray, though, and–since I don’t have a copy of the film on DVD to compare them to– I’m assuming that at least some of them might be exclusive to that format (you’ll have to check yourself if this is highly important to you). The Blu-ray comes with an audio commentary featuring Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens (!!!), a raft of deleted scenes, a documentary about the making of the film, a few behind-the-scenes clips (which always seem weird to me when coupled with films that are– more or less– one, long making-of), and the requisite trailer. It’s a sturdy package, and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty informative, but for the most part this is going to be a film that you purchase for the main event.
As I said in the opening, The Cove is a brutal, difficult-to-watch film, but it’s got a strong, honorable message, and the courageous lengths that Psihoyos and his crew went to in order to secure this footage are absolutely incredible. If you’re the environmental type– or if you’re just a fan of the documentary genre– you need to pick up the film immediately. And, even if you’re not the environmental-type or prone to watching documentary films, it should go without saying that The Cove will still inform, entertain, and shock you. What more could you ask from a documentary?
My grade? A-