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The Cove: Sundance Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The Bottom Line

Hard-hitting eco-documentary shows the dark side of "Flipper."

Venue

Sundance Film Festival

Director

Louie Psihoyos

Screenwriter

Mark Monroe

Louie Psihoyos' Audience Award winner "The Cove" is much more than a social-issue doc, combining investigative reporting, educational filmmaking and eco-thriller elements that inspired repeat standing ovations at Sundance screenings.

PARK CITY -- Among the most charismatically cinematic animals, dolphins have enlivened scores of nature programs and filled the starring role on the 1960s TV series "Flipper." Focusing on "Flipper" trainer Richard O'Barry's subsequent career rescuing captive dolphins, Louie Psihoyos' Audience Award winner "The Cove" is much more than a social-issue doc, combining investigative reporting, educational filmmaking and eco-thriller elements that inspired repeat standing ovations at Sundance screenings.

A broad cable audience will flock to the film avidly, and strategically targeted theatrical exposure could attract the same demographics drawn to Sundance alums "March of the Penguins" and the quasi-caper doc "Man on Wire."

For nearly 40 years after his traumatic experience on "Flipper" that saw the death of his favorite dolphin, O'Barry has worked to free these marine mammals and publicize their plight. Teaming with conservation organizations Earth Island Institute and the Oceanic Preservation Society, he has zeroed in on Japan's small coastal town of Taiji, where fishermen ensnare a majority of dolphins displayed in marine parks.

Beyond objections to the Taiji fishermen's hunting practices, which force the animals into nets, O'Barry suspects the town is concealing unsavory secrets related to the exploitation of dolphins passed over for capture.

Together with the OPS' Psihoyos, a veteran National Geographic photographer, scuba diver and first-time filmmaker, O'Barry assembles a crack team of marine specialists, high-tech experts and experienced divers to investigate the fate of dolphins herded into a cove adjacent to the Taiji capture site.

Already notorious for protesting Taiji's marine-mammal industry, O'Barry is forced to keep a low profile while submitting to police questioning, constant surveillance and frequent harassment as the other team members case the cove, which is surrounded by high cliffs and protected by razor-wire fencing, security patrols and guard dogs.

During several covert night missions, the investigators penetrate the defensive cordon to conceal remote microphones and high-definition cameras with attached hard drives, hidden underwater or along the cliffs inside customized imitation rocks. Once retrieved, the clandestine footage reveals a worst-case scenario for the dolphins: After the fishermen force them into the cove, they mercilessly harpoon the creatures to death in a heart-churning sequence that turns the cove scarlet with blood.

Psihoyos doesn't stop at revealing the dolphin slaughter, further documenting how the meat is used in local school-lunch programs and mislabeled as whale product in Japanese fish markets even though it contains toxic levels of mercury, a fact concealed by the fisheries industry and government authorities.

Although Mark Monroe's persuasively written script is polemic, the filmmakers' case is supported by detailed scientific and investigative evidence, which Taiji officials apparently would not discuss on camera.

Shot rivetingly by cinematographer Brooke Aitken, who combines digital, night-vision and thermal-imaging formats into a formidable package, the footage is edited tautly by Geoffrey Richman and enhanced measurably by J. Ralph's suspenseful score.

Production: Oceanic Preservation Society
Director: Louie Psihoyos
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Fisher Stevens, Paula DuPre Pesmen
Executive producer: Jim Clark
Director of photography: Brooke Aitken
Music: J. Ralph
Editor: Geoffrey Richman
Sales agents: Submarine Films/WMA
No rating, 90 minutes