Louie Psihoyos’ agitprop doc The Cove concerns the slaughter of dolphins in a rural Japanese fishing community, but it also records in meticulous, exciting detail how Psihoyos and his team of experts managed to circumvent security and sneak cameras and microphones into a place few people get to see firsthand. It’s impossible to watch the footage of the ocean running red with dolphin blood and not be a little shaken, especially when Psihoyos surrounds the gory bits with hard data about how our over-fished seas are leaving parts of the world on the brink of environmental catastrophe, and how larger ocean-dwellers often contain toxic levels of mercury that make their meat largely unsafe for consumption. It’s enough to make anyone sympathetic to a line spoken by one of Psihoyos’ interviewees: “If you’re not an activist, you’re an inactivist.”
And yet that line also reveals what’s iffy about The Cove. One of Psihoyos’ main allies is Richard O’Barry, the renowned former dolphin trainer whose work on Flipper helped popularize dolphin shows worldwide. O’Barry later had a change of heart, and now fights to have all captive dolphins freed, with a passion that leads him to fight on multiple fronts: railing against dolphin-eaters and against government cover-ups of the mercury levels in dolphins, and generally siding with anyone who wants to protect dolphins, whether they want to shutter Sea World or not. As a result of Psihoyos’ close association with O’Barry, The Cove’s ultimate message gets muddled, especially since Psihoyos limits all counter-arguments to a few inarticulate or thuggish boobs. If documentarians want to indicate their causes are just, it helps to present the strongest case possible for the opposition, rather than just vanquishing any handy strawman.
That said, The Cove offers a lot to think about in terms of the future of fishing, and Psihoyos’ gift for using fiction-feature conventions does make a seemingly unpalatable subject entertaining. While dropping facts and arguments left and right, Psihoyos is simultaneously staging a slick, nail-biting caper film. Yet The Cove hews so close to the mode of an action-adventure film—right down to the clichéd villains and show-stopping confrontations—that after a while, it begins to feel like too much of a movie, not an exposé of an actual problem. Real-world crises require the intervention of real people with legitimate disagreements and personal flaws, not characters yanked from spy movies and two-fisted TV adventure shows.