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MOVIE REVIEW

The Cove

Going deep to save dolphins

The film follows members of the Colorado-based Oceanic Preservation Society into the small Japanese town of Taiji. The film follows members of the Colorado-based Oceanic Preservation Society into the small Japanese town of Taiji. (Oceanic Preservation Society)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 7, 2009

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This has been the summer of the food docu-thriller. “The End of the Line’’ tried to scare us to do something about the world’s overfishing problem. “Food, Inc.’’ twisted our arms (far more successfully) to think, really think, about what we’re eating and where it comes from. They’re thrillers insofar as they aim to scare you straight with facts, statistics, and talking heads. But each ends in a flurry of advisory yes-we-can-ism (visit this website; eat less of this, etc.).

“The Cove’’ is a thriller in a classical sense. It’s the first of these movies to tell a story with more than stock footage and on-camera interviews. It also smartly refracts a major ethical, ecological problem through the prism of guerrilla events. The film follows the descent of members of the Colorado-based Oceanic Preservation Society on the small Japanese town of Taiji in order to install cameras to capture footage of local fishermen trapping and slaughtering dolphins. It opens with images recorded with a thermal night-vision camera of silhouettes swinging axes into slumping black mounds and gets a lot more graphic later on.

As it builds to that mission, the movie exposes possible conspiracies, coverups, and fabrications in parts of the Japanese government. Japan controls a great deal of the world’s fish market, a lucrative portion of which is invested in dolphins both as objects of public amusement and as food (the flesh, illegally high in mercury, is sold to an unsuspecting public as whale meat).

The facts of dolphins appearing at aquatic parks is generically upsetting (they’re cut off from what makes them dolphins; and we mistake their stress for bliss). But it has a personal corollary, too. Smartly, the film lays these sad biological insights at the feet of Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who caught and tamed the five dolphins who played Flipper on TV. He’s spent many of the last 40 years remorsefully fighting on behalf of dolphins. Operation Taiji is his idea.

His plan is to present the footage during an international whaling conference. If he can show the world the fishermen’s torture and killing, maybe the cove will be closed.

O’Barry’s squad enters Japan carrying dozens of equipment bags, which raises many eyebrows with Japanese authorities. O’Barry is certain they’re being followed. By the government? The fishermen? Yakuza? So “The Cove,’’ which the photographer Louie Psihoyos directed (visually the movie’s not up to his standards), begins as a kind of “Mission: Impossible’’ or “Ocean’s Eleven’’ adventure and winds up being a work of suspicion and paranoia. In the process, it generates a fair amount of investigative suspense and horror (at some point that cove turns completely red). Shots of bleeding dolphins futilely trying to swim to safety are only slightly more disturbing than the sight of some of the fishermen laughing at a diver brought to tears witnessing all this death.

The Oceanic Preservation Society doesn’t change the world so much as call attention to something so very wrong with it. And in doing so, “The Cove’’ culminates with an image of political agitation that might be one of the most oddly effective public service announcements you’ll see. It’s just a man wearing a flat-screen TV, and it feels very much like something David Byrne might have done in his Talking Heads days. But the message has been turned upside down: Start making sense.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE COVE Directed by: Louie Psihoyos

Written by: Mark Monroe

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (disturbing content, including the hacking and bludgeoning of dolphins)

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