Each fall in a small, Japanese village, fishermen systematically slaughter 23,000 dolphins, selling them for parts. Other dolphins are captured and sold to touristic enterprises worldwide to perform or swim with humans. When avid diver and film director Louie Psihoyos found out about it, he recruited a team of intrepid cameramen, free-divers and tech junkies to infiltrate the remote killing cove and show the world what goes on there.
The Cove, which arrived on DVD this week, is the culmination of Psihoyos’ efforts. Part documentary, part thriller and part action film, the movie is an unusual approach to what, for most of us, is an abstract topic typically relegated to science journals. Instead, armed with macho dudes sporting outlandish soul patches and a wealth of state-of-the-art devices, Psihoyos created a riveting film that makes its visceral, activist’s point but also explains the slaughter’s role in the larger context of environmental issues and global health.
The film hinges on his mission to film the Japanese cove at the risk of imprisonment and, possibly, physical harm. Yet, Psihoyos and his crew are not without a sense of humor as they plan their covert operation. To build their outdoor “rock cams,” for example, they seek out help from Hollywood effects specialists who demonstrate past achievements, like an exploding waterfall for Evan Almighty. Elsewhere, Psihoyos finds a helicopter pilot to create their sky cam, which they design to look like a children’s balloon. Even Ric O’Barry, the Flipper dolphin-trainer-turned activist, lightens up: In his efforts to guide the team through the village without arrest, he dons a wig to hide his identity.
As the team orchestrates their mission with James Bond-style tools, The Cove also offers expert knowledge of some of the myriad problems that intertwined with the dolphin slaughter, such as mercury poisoning and whale poaching. In the meantime, there are also some celebrity visits to the killing cove. At one point, pro surfer (and the film’s resident hunk) David Rastovich organizes a paddle-out in the cove to protest the killings. Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas are among those that join him — and they’re also on the front lines as local fishermen shoo them away with sticks.
While Psihoyos is The Cove’s affable, fearless leader — he has a Dr. Drew-like presence with white hair and well-tanned skin — O’Barry is, in many ways, the soul of the film. Not only does he guide the producers’ efforts in Japan with in-depth, on-the-ground knowledge of the town’s local leaders, dangers and politics, but he also drives the mission with his devotion to the cause. Harboring a deep sense of responsibility for the global dolphin business, O’Barry has since devoted his life to trying to reverse the trend and take down the industry.
What makes The Cove accessible for the rest of us, though, is that it’s fueled by a sense of purpose that’s tempered with a sense of fun, allowing even the non-activist to appreciate that there’s more at stake than a bunch of cute animals.