Since "Nanook of the North" and probably earlier, nonfiction filmmakers have meddled with the subjects of their movies. The genre has never lacked artistic meddling. But one particular brand of documentary, the crusading partisan spiel, puts filmmaker front and center in an overt plea to change public opinion and alter viewers' behavior.
Directed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, "The Cove" is only the latest example of this sub-genre, but there is a twist. This time, director and crew are players in their own activist action movie -- a hush-hush guerilla mission to document the brutal and systematic slaughter of dolphins in a hidden nook along the rugged coast of Taiji, Japan. Since no one else is doing anything about it, they figured they would, donning the black garb, camo face-paint and grim resolve of a special-ops team out to rescue innocent lives. It's just that the lives are cetacean.
Whales, you may recall, have been protected from commercial fishing since 1986. Dolphins and porpoises are not. "The Cove" devotes some time to Japan's political maneuvering on the International Whaling Commission, which it portrays as too impotent, ignorant and/or chicken-livered to do anything about the 23,000 dolphins butchered each year. The animals at Taiji, steered off their migratory routes by fishermen clanging on metal, are sealed inside a lagoon and presented to trainers shopping for live bottlenose females -- because of Flipper, the preferred choice for aquarium shows and swim-with-dolphin programs.
Once the trainers make their purchases (at up to $150,000 a pop), the remaining mammals are herded into a second, secret cove, where the entire frantic throng is killed for meat. There is no disputing this point. Psihoyos and his team got the footage they were after thanks to meticulous planning, lots of furtive sneaking around and the judicious placement of underwater microphones and cameras disguised as rocks. It's all there: the cove, thick with dolphins; the men in dinghies spearing them, like a fish in a proverbial barrel, as the water clouds with blood; the high-pitched keen of the dolphins themselves.
This is, of course, the smoking gun. There would not be a film without it. The caper-movie touches and cocky self-awareness may wear thin (Psihoyos even compares them to "Ocean's Eleven" - ugh), but you can't discount the importance, or the horror, of that footage. And it's hard to stomach some of the data batted around for our edification and outrage, such as the fact that dolphin flesh, poisoned with mercury, is often sold as whale meat and distributed to school lunch programs.
"The Cove" features plentiful interviews with Richard O'Barry, the trainer who handled (and clearly loved) the various bottlenose dolphins who played Flipper on the popular 1960s television show. With obvious and enduring heartache, O'Barry describes his overnight transformation into the globe-hopping, dolphin-liberating, jail-time-serving animal-rights activist he is today. In almost mystical terms he speaks of the intelligence of small cetaceans, the self-awareness of them, their sensitivity to humans and their depression in captivity. "A dolphin's smile," he says, "is nature's greatest deception." Especially in the carnage at Taiji.