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Diver Mandy-Rae Cruickshank in THE COVE (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

Directed by
Louie Psihoyos
Produced by
Paula DuPré Pesmen & Fisher Stevens
Written by Mark Monroe
Released by Roadside Attractions
USA. 91 min. Rated PG-13

The Cove marshals an unusual combination of documentary styles for an enthralling, eye-opening, and entertaining exposé: undercover investigative journalism, photogenic essay, a call to action, and a personal quest to defend one man’s obsession. In championing the protection of dolphins from human exploitation, director Louie Psihoyos leaves no stone unturned to convince you.

That all these techniques are undertaken and integrated so well on an around-the-world shoot by a first-time filmmaker is a notable achievement. (Psihoyos has been a leading nature photographer for such publications as National Geographic for over two decades.) He was inspired by the agonized search for redemption of Richard O’Barry, the man who in the 1960s successfully trained the dolphins for the popular Flipper TV series (seen in clips) that triggered the explosion in using the sea mammals for entertainment. O’Barry has since relentlessly circled the globe to release captive dolphins and interrupt round-ups.

Risking arrest and worse, O’Barry tracked down the hidden location where traffickers brutally select the dolphins that delight oblivious audiences around the world with their tricks at aquariums and marine parks—and where fishermen kill off the rest. But his homemade grainy videos (and perhaps his monomania) were only getting him banned from conferences, let alone from Taiji, the small town in Japan whose benign celebration of marine mammals hides what really goes on beneath the waves in the nearby titular inlet.

To help him more dramatically and thoroughly document and expose the cruelty, Psihoyos formed a Justice League-type commando team of committed idealists with remarkable skill sets: scientists, surfers, sailors, a military electronic expert, and even a trickster from Industrial Light and Magic who designs fake rocks to hide underwater cameras. Brooke Aitken is the daredevil cinematographer for their furtive shoots (as well as setting cameras on a remote controlled helicopter and blimp). Most striking are the divers, especially Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, who can not only hold her breath underwater for record-breaking lengths of time, but breathtakingly seems like a graceful mermaid communing with sea creatures, accompanied by composer J. Ralph’s unearthly score.

While The Cove opens and continually titillates with run-ups to the team’s climactic derring-do, Psihoyos follows not just the tide but the global political and money trail so he can identify the cause for the blood in the water. This detailed background and wider perspective lifts the hidden-camera footage out of gotcha-TV magazine mode and onto serious territory. (He does allow officials to respond to his accusations, though they sound foolish). He attends sessions and interviews members of the International Whaling Commission that has authority over dolphin hunting, and zeroes in on how Japanese financial incentives offered to small, poor island nations (in exchange for support) make the organization so ineffectual. He pursues what happens to the dolphins rejected for training (a live one is bought for up to $150,000, while a dead one earns fishermen about $600). His new findings of mercury toxicity in dolphin meat are so shocking that they have already led to the first local ban in Japan.

Beyond the usual PETA-type objections, Psihoyos also strongly makes the case for why the very social dolphins are not well suited to a restricted life for human amusement, even if bred in captivity—as if you weren’t already feeling guilty for every dolphin show you ever attended and enjoyed (and presumably never will again after seeing this film). Overflowing with research and passion, The Cove is an environmental horror story that exceptionally combines brains and beauty. Nora Lee Mandel
July 31, 2009



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