Sep 8 2009

The Cove


Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we look at The Cove, the new documentary in theaters now. In partnership with the Edwards University Towne Center 6 in Irvine, one of the few Southern California theaters showing the film, Benn and James caught the film, and are giving you their thoughts while you can still see it for yourself. See what they thought below.

The Cove
Year: 2009
Directed by: Louie Psihoyos
Written by: Mark Monroe
Starring: Richard O’Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Charles Hambleton
Genre: Documentary, Thriller

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Most documentaries try and achieve two separate thing: inform their audience on a certain subject matter that may or may not be out of the public eye and create a narrative that is fascinating and interesting in its own right. While The Cove manages the former much better than the latter, it still is an entertaining and educational film over all.

The Cove is about several groups of environmentalist who have all made it their goal to reveal to the world the tragedies of a yearly massacre of thousands of dolphins by a small Japanese fishing community. The town keeps security around “The Cove” in which this happens very high, so it takes a little more stealth than it would immediately seem upon hearing the premise. The majority of the film though, is focused on informing you about the atrocities of dolphin hunting, the consequences, and the various organizations such as the IWC who are failing to do anything about it. The film is most successful at simply feeding its audience information, including many facts that do in fact open their eyes to a tragedy they had no idea was occurring. Anyone who watches the film will feel that at least something must be done about it, if not by themselves, and some may even follow the requisite site URL to do their own part.

As for the narrative, the film does a good job of presenting it in a way that is intriguing by analogizing it to an Ocean’s Eleven type heist film. This is where the film becomes most fun, as they build a crack team of environmentalists with different specialties, form a plan, and attempt to execute it. This particular sub plot of the film works quite well, but is hindered by two things. The first is that their goal seems a little unexciting. Rather than forming a plan that will permanently solve the problem, they are simply taking the first steps towards raising awareness by attempting to film and record the audio of what happens in The Cove. While this is certainly a wise objective, it isn’t exactly robbing a bank. Still, they take enough time to show you how serious the town’s government is about keeping them out, so even though the stakes might not be that high, they feel as though they are. The second hindrance is the slightly stilted narrative layout. The film isn’t organized into chapters, but it does tend to keep to each of its subplots for lengthy periods of time. During this time, the excitement of the heist is lost. This is probably a result of their mission not really taking up all that much screen time. During the rest of the film we are informed of governmental bickering, the dangers of mercury poisoning, and the career of the man who discovered the slaughter. Certain subplots, such as the surfers trying to help these dolphins, really go nowhere at all. These things are all very informational, but aren’t nearly as entertaining as the stealthy installation of cameras in The Cove.

The Cove has a message to deliver, and it delivers it successfully. As a documentary it works, and is quite serviceable. As a movie, it is less revolutionary, and less entertaining than some other documentaries in recent years. Still, this is something that audiences should know about, and it is worth seeing just so that you can see what is going on in your world, and hopefully contribute to fixing the problem.

Benn says:

The topical documentary is nothing new for us in this day of age. With the films of Michael Moore, Who Killed the Electric Car and Food Inc., the documentary serving as a podium for protesters and activists has become a very popular practice. Although elements of it resemble the aforementioned documentaries, The Cove takes the investigative nature of these films to entirely new level.

The Cove follows former dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry as he protests the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Every year, for about six months 23,000 dolphins are rounded up for dolphin trainers to purchase and take away. The remaining thousands of unclaimed dolphins are then led into an isolated cove nearby and killed, while the fisherman who do the deed turn around sell the meat to the Japanese market.

O’Barry (who was one of the head trainers on Flipper) has been protesting the slaughter of dolphins for the last thirty years, and discusses his ethical and health-related reasons for doing so. For one, his experience with dolphins leads him to believe that they are highly intelligent creatures, and likens their sensibilities and capacity for emotion to domesticated animals, including humans. He also speaks out against the rising threats of mercury poisoning due to the consumption of dolphin meat, and blames the Japanese government and the Japanese representatives in the International Whaling Commission (or IWC for short) for turning a blind eye while reaping in the monetary benfits.

Of course, the most interesting part of the documentary is the team of divers, adrenaline junkies, cameramen and activists, director Louie Psihoyos assembles in an attempt to record the never-before-seen dolphin slaughter that takes place in the cove off of Taiji, Japan. Despite the nature of their objective, watching this real life “man-on-a-mission” situation is very entertaining and keeps the audience involved in the film. Considering that the cove is highly guarded, and many of the activists are under constant surveillance by the Japanese police, the tension and suspense involved during the course of their mission is authentic and will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The most refreshing element of this form of active activism lies in the fact that these individuals decided to get their hands dirty and risk imprisonment for their cause; a quality rarely seen in an age were activism is collecting signatures and crying outrage from the safety of one’s own home.

Louie Psihoyos gives equal time the number of issues about and relating to the dolphin slaughter, from exposing the inadequacies of the ICW, the political corruption within the Japanese government, and the undercover work of O’Barry’s team of environmentalist spies. The film does get away from itself from time to time when the film focuses on mercury poisoning due to the consumption of dolphin meat. Although an interesting and frightening consequence, it doesn’t have much to do with what takes place in the cove itself, which is the center of the film. Of course, the meat is coming from the dolphins slaughtered in the cove, but the mercury poisoning becomes a major part of the film towards the second half of the film. Of course, it is an important topic that O’Barry feels very passionate about, but Psihoyos may have taken too much time on this topic when he could have focused more on the espionage, which was the most compelling and distinguishing element of the film.

Be that as it may, The Cove exposes an act of animal brutality that has remained in the shadows of the media, and the film does a good job at presenting the audience with the facts and arguments against the capture and killing of dolphins. Although not the most complex or intriguing documentary of the summer, The Cove has a solid message that is executed strongly, without being pretentious or glib. The footage taken of the slaughter performed within the titular cove is both unsettling and frightening, and will force audiences to re-evaluate their opinions on the who and what dolphins are, and this kind of thought provoking questioning of values and identity is what documentaries of this fashion are all about.

Benn’s rebuttal:

It does appear that The Cove‘s most definitive attribute also does itself of disservice. The ad campaign for the film really featured the espionage element of the film, so one would expect that to be the main part of the film. Although it is important and necessary to talk about mercury poisoning and political corruption, I found myself wanting more of the mission. I will disagree with James in that I found the mission to be very exciting; had there been more focus on this mission it might have been more explicitly suspenseful and complete.

James’ rebuttal:

Although the time spent on mercury poisoning was probably too much, I actually found it to be one of the more horrifying aspects of the film. While as a nature lover I was offended by the slaughter of the dolphins, the threat of mercury poisoning feels a little more immediate to my personal safety. It doesn’t seem to be affecting anyone but the Japanese and those with a taste for whale meat, but it is affecting human beings as opposed to animals. Let’s be clear though, that doesn’t minimize the threat to the dolphins, which is well proven in the film and a tragedy on a level completely above the mercury poisoning, if by nothing else but sheer numbers.

One Response to “The Cove”

  • Kell Brigan Says:

    Interesting observations. Personally, I found the overt appeals to emotion and constant, self-indulgent “outrage” absolutely wearying. (Almost as wearying as the “celebrities” featured on the film’s website. WHO CARES WHAT A BUNCH OF VACUOUS EGOTISTS THINK?)

    What I wish I’d seen: SOME attempt to present the point of view of the fishermen. There is one tiny scene where they’re shown (without permission — it’s part of the “spy” footage) discussing the change in whale and fish populations, and what they’ve seen around the world. Sorry, filmmakers, but I don’t think they’re inhuman bastards. (Seen an American slaughterhouse lately. Oh, yeah. Right. We’re all supposed to be Hollywood veeeguns.) I think the fishing industry in the area’s stuck in a weird situation; if the government subsidies stopped, and the market dried up for the meat, they’d no doubt look for work elsewhere. At least some attempt to present all sides of the discussion, instead of the endless self-congratulatory business, would have been vastly better than this propaganda fest. Most of it’s probably accurate, so why “poison” it with the toxic waste of egotist “outrage,” dishonest appeals to emotion, and absolutely one-sided “coverage?”

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