Not unlike last year’s Academy Award-winning doc Man on Wire (which also played at the Provincetown Film Festival), Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove utilizes familiar narrative genre tropes to tell its against-all-odds nonfiction story. Despite this somewhat convoluted device, The Cove rarely falters, succeeding as a clear-eyed indictment of marine mammal hunting, and exposing the injustice of secretive annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Ric O’Barry, dolphin trainer for the 1960s Flipper TV show, obsesses over repenting for his role in perpetuating dolphin exhibition, now a multi-million dollar enterprise. O’Barry’s fight against the mistreatment of these animals has led him to numerous run-ins with the law (when he’s asked if he’s ever been arrested, O’Barry playfully answers, “This year?”), and takes him to the Ocean Preservation Society (Psihoyos’ organization), who he tasks with assembling an Ocean’s Eleven-style team to penetrate the aggressive defense of Taiji’s local fishermen, who fight violently to preserve their volatile occupation. The purpose of O’Barry and the OPS’s particular mission? Capture the horrifying brutalities committed in the titular cove on film, seemingly the only way to get the public’s attention and that of the IWC (International Whaling Commission, depicted here as the most lackadaisical of all U.N. recognized environmental organizations).
It’s pretty heavy stuff, and even more so when we learn (or at many will) about the high levels of mercury in dolphin meat being (get this) given away to children in the Japanese school system. So now, this isn’t only an issue of animal abuse, but also a health emergency, being covered up by the Japanese government (an establishment depicted here as being just as apathetic if not more so than the IWC to this particular crisis). Adding to the intrigue is The Cove‘s mid-film detour, when it chooses to take a closer look at these dolphins, their stellar beauty and their almost intimidating intelligence. These are truly majestic creatures, and humanizing them in the way the film does not only sets us up for the devastating emotional blow of its last act, but also transcends any accusation that the film merely objectifies these dolphins for the sake of its heart-rending drama. Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove is passionate nonfiction cinema with a purpose: ending the mistreatment of dolphins, the hunting of which has become increasingly pointless and even dangerous. But it’s also great cinema on an aesthetic level; the photography of the dolphins is shot with a poet’s eye, not unlike the staggering nature footage in last year’s Werner Herzog doc Encounters at the End of the World. And the assemblage of interviews, archival videos, and “covert ops,” infiltrating the cove itself, makes for an informative, exciting and thought-provoking work that ranks as the most vital (and best) documentary of 2009 thus far.