Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Cove

One thing missing from my extensive left-wing credentials is "animal rights activist." I love the cute domestic critters we keep as pets as much as the next guy, but when push comes to lunch, cows and chickens are way too delicious for me to dwell on the unpleasantness that goes into getting their cooked and basted flanks onto my dinner plate.

I would, however, be extremely uncomfortable eating dolphin. They can count and speak and think abstractly; mentally, they're about on par with slightly dim preschoolers. If you're cool with eating slaughtered dolphin, you should be required to eat a slaughtered dim preschooler first to prove your commitment. But there are many who do eat dolphin (and many more who eat it unknowingly, mixed in with other meat), and Louie Psihoyos' new documentary The Cove does an impressive job shedding light on the formerly secret annual slaughter of 23,000 dolphins in Taiji, Japan that facilitates these morally dubious meals.

It's not exactly a fun movie to watch, but it does have a certain cinematic flair, with a traditional hero figure by the name of Ric O'Barry, a reformed evildoer (by which I mean dolphin catcher and dolphin trainer) who means to free the captive dolphins and stop dolphin slaughter whether legally or illegally (Chaotic Good, we nerds call it), a real-life shadowy organization of dolphin hunters with evil henchmen, espionage missions, and a bona fide car chase. It even has special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, albeit not in the usual manner, as ILM helps the team build authentic-looking rocks that hide cameras which are set up to capture the dolphin slaughter.

And capture they do! The film "climaxes," as it were, with a profoundly sickening five-minute sequence of real-life dolphin slaughter shot from numerous angles by the spy cameras; dolphins screaming and dying en masse as they are unceremoniously speared and sliced open, the ocean literally running red in the aftermath, on a day like many others. Barring a dolphin having killed your family, it's like to be one of the most unpleasant things you've ever seen onscreen, but structurally essential to end the film with, and seeing as this very footage has helped bring light to and damage the dolphin hunting industry financially as well as getting dolphin meat out of Japanese schools, it's pretty goddamn important.

The documentary has a three-act structure, with the first act made up mostly of interviews and facts and statistics about the dolphin industry (including that dolphin meat has five times the safe level of mercury and is often secretly slipped into other sea food in Japan), the second being the planning and building and infiltration to set up the cameras, and finally the slaughter and aftermath. It's fairly tightly constructed, but if the film has a problem it's that even at ninety minutes it feels a little overextended. A few bits, especially one where some American celebrities fly over to protest dolphin hunting, had me sitting with one eyebrow raised thinking "this is not pertinent," and I almost wonder if the material would have been better served by a sixty-minute TV special rather than a feature film.

Nonetheless, it's a fairly important documentary about what is frankly a minor genocide, and I'd recommend it, as long as you think you can stomach the final bit. Or fast forward through it, or whatever.

3 Stars out of 5

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