When the director Louie Psihoyos slipped into the little coastal town of Taiji, Japan, it was under cover of documenting the degradation of ocean reefs. Once there, however, he proceeded to mount one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the conservation movement.
“The Cove” is much more than just a record of that adventure. Like the director’s cover story, the movie is a Trojan horse: an exceptionally well-made documentary that unfolds like a spy thriller, complete with bugged hotel rooms, clandestine derring-do and mysterious men in gray flannel suits. Those men — perhaps cops, perhaps worse — tail Mr. Psihoyos and his crew unrelentingly, determined to prevent anyone from filming the enormously lucrative dolphin capture and slaughter that support the town’s economy and employ its fishermen.
This killing may be legal — dolphins and other small marine mammals are not protected by the ban on commercial whaling — but, as we shall see, the methods used are so nonchalantly brutal and gut-churningly primitive that Taiji officials are understandably publicity-shy. (And, we learn later, there are other secrets lurking beneath the town’s thriving tourist industry and cute, dolphin-shape pleasure boats.) Consequently, anyone straying too close to the kill zone — a secluded lagoon protected by steep cliffs, manned tunnels and razor-wire gates — is violently harassed by videocam-wielding fishermen hoping to record an imprisonable offense.
None of which fazes Mr. Psihoyos, an urbane eco-warrior who pops up periodically to provide context and clarification. His soothing tones, however, can’t disguise a relish for the fray: beneath the silver-fox exterior beats a rabble-rousing heart. (“You try to do the story legally,” he insists, eyes twinkling in remembrance of every cloak-and-dagger move.) That heart invigorates every frame of “The Cove,” as does Mr. Psihoyos’s eye for a powerful image (his photographs have graced many an issue of National Geographic) and savvy narrative style: this is no angry enviro-rant but a living, breathing movie whose horrifying disclosures feel fully earned.
Seduced by the familiar rhythms of the heist thriller, we watch as Mr. Psihoyos recruits his dream team — including a former avionics engineer with the Canadian Air Force and a pair of champion free divers — and turns it loose. Planting ingeniously camouflaged, state-of-the-art equipment in and around their target, they capture sights and sounds of uncommon beauty and quiet revelation: a group of fishermen reminiscing about blue-whale pods as dense as “a clump of bamboo” and a ghostly, thermal handprint clinging to a gatepost like arcane spoor. Viewed from below, the hypnotically graceful progress of a free diver resembles nothing so much as an undulating mermaid with a giant can opener for a tail — an inadvertent clue to the movie’s intentions.
Adroitly assembled by the award-winning editor Geoffrey Richman, the movie’s many interviews and interests (ranging from dolphin-human relations to the mystery of where all that slaughtered meat ends up) interweave seamlessly. And if the film’s villains are sometimes difficult to untangle, it could be because one of them, the worldwide marine-park industry, is not formally represented; it could also be because without our patronage, that industry would not exist.
Heroes, however, are instantly identifiable, like the shy Japanese councilmen who risk their jobs to protect schoolchildren from mercury-tainted dolphin meat. But “The Cove,” like the dolphins, would be lost without Richard O’Barry, who captured and trained all five of the animals who made Flipper a television star and a household name and sparked the craze for performing sea mammals. His drooping eyes and sagging shoulders testify to the bone-deep exhaustion of someone who has spent the last 35 years atoning, and when he gate-crashes a meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the video screen strapped to his chest is like a physical manifestation of decades of guilt.