by Matt Fagerholm
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No animal lover or environmental activist can afford to miss Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove, a spectacularly involving and vital documentary that deserves to be ranked among the year’s very best. Like the subjects in Man on Wire, the Cove filmmakers are risking their lives on camera, allowing their story to acquire the rhythm and urgency of a thriller. Like Food, Inc., the film sheds an exceedingly unappetizing light on the content of what we eat, and where it comes from. Though some of the footage may be extremely hard to watch, it’s impossible for viewers to tear their eyes away.
The story centers on the Japanese village of Taiji, which Psihoyos (in the DVD audio commentary) describes as something out of a Stephen King novel. From the look of the town, one would think that its inhabitants love dolphins (the creature is seen in countless decorations lining the streets). Yet in Taiji’s national park, an appalling annual event takes place. Hunters, armed with spears, kill an estimated 2,000 dolphins, and sell their meat to consumers. The most physically superior dolphins are allowed to live, and sold to aquariums, where they reside in tortuous captivity. The dolphin meat, laced with dangerous quantities of mercury, is often falsely sold as “sea food.”
This is just a sampling of the muck raked up by Psihoyos and his heroic filmmaking team, which is referred to as the OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society). The leader of the team, Ric O’Barry, is a fascinating character in his own right. He captured and trained the five dolphins used in the classic TV series, “Flipper,” which was largely responsible for America’s love affair with the seemingly happy animals (which always carry a perpetual smile). But as O’Barry discovered the detrimental effects of their captivity, he underwent a transformative change of heart. He now devotes his life to freeing the animals he once kept imprisoned, and his impassioned spirit stays with viewers long after the film ends.
This is the type of movie that an audio commentary was made for. It’s exciting enough to watch the filmmakers sneak into the park, where they plant a staggering variety of hidden cameras in order to capture the forbidden footage. But the commentary increases the suspense even further by allowing Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens to reminisce about their moment-to-moment experiences of evading the police and hunters. The other stellar special feature offered on the DVD is a mini-doc that expands on the mercury poisoning brought about by dolphin meat (Psihoyos is shocked to discover mercury in his blood).
The Cove has the power to turn enormous tides. Its hopeful humanist message is best expressed through the words of Margaret Mead: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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