The Cove (PG-13) (92 min.) — Documentaries are meant to inform viewers, but Louie Psihoyos' debut takes the genre to another level.
Packing as much suspense as any blockbuster, The Cove is also a top-notch thriller because Psihoyos (pronounced "SOY-yos") doesn't just passively expose the slaughter of dolphins and health risks in eating their meat. He gathers a daredevil crew risking their lives for an Ocean's Eleven-style caper to do something about it.
The cove in question is a small lagoon in Taiji, Japan, where fishermen — allegedly backed by Yakuza mobs — annually herd and trap hundreds of dolphins. Some are sold to amusement parks, but most are harpooned, dissected and sold as whale meat. Psihoyos presents evidence that the meat contains toxic levels of mercury poisoning. One constant buyer is Japan's public school system for its compulsory lunch program.
Psihoyos claims the International Whaling Commission's ostensible protection of the species is controlled by Japan's delegation and a cadre of small nations bribed for support. Aided by dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O'Barry, Psihoyos aims to obtain video evidence of atrocities occurring in the cove.
But how? The lagoon is guarded around the clock by fishermen who will do anything to protect their livelihood. One protester already died under mysterious circumstances. Others were jailed on trespassing charges.
The answer makes The Cove a truly astonishing film. Psihoyos gathers a team of eco-commandos with unique skills: freedivers who don't require noisy air tanks, nervy friends with tactical prowess and designers from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic special-effects lab. They disguise cameras and microphones as rocks and branches, to be installed under cover of darkness and threat of capture.
By the time Psihoyos methodically explains why the mission is necessary — dolphins are intelligent enough to suffer, the mercury poisoning and corruption angles — the clandestine activity crackles like a Jason Bourne adventure. The first shot from the underwater camera, of clear water gradually turning blood red, is one of the year's most unforgettable sights.
The Cove confidently makes its case for dolphin protection then transforms into a thriller unlike any documentary before. By the time O'Barry strides into a whaling commission meeting wearing a TV screen playing Psihoyos' footage, I was ready to stand and cheer. Not entirely for the message, but for its intrepid messengers. The Cove is easily one of 2009's best films. A
Steve Persall, Times film critic