The Cove's caper story helps grim message go down

Documentary captures the horrific, clandestine slaughter of dolphins in Japan

The year's most hateful cinematic villains aren’t the Romulans or the Decepticons, but the Japanese fishing industry. At least from the point of view of the devastating documentary The Cove. Ocean preservationists discover that a heavily guarded lagoon located in the idyllic Japanese coastal town Taiji is ground zero for the slaughter of thousands of dolphins a year.

The Cove presents a wrenching exposé of dolphin fishing for meat, as well as for star attractions at dolphinariums. Fortunately, first-time director and ocean preservationist Louie Psihoyos packages the material not solely as a save-the-dolphins tract, but also as an edge-of-your-seat caper flick that’s more gripping than any fictional thriller this year. Like last year’s Man on Wire, The Cove uses the trappings of the heist genre to recount a gripping true story while illuminating an environmental tragedy.

Early in the film, Psihoyos visits Taiji with Richard O’Barry, a trainer for the original “Flipper” TV show and now an oft-arrested dolphin rights advocate. Psihoyos initially looks askance at O’Barry’s paranoid behavior, which includes driving around town in a surgical mask. The close police surveillance and hostility of local fishermen suggest O’Barry’s suspicions have justification.

Psihoyos and his friends enlist in Barry’s cause and resolve to film one of the clandestine dolphin slaughters. Someone references Ocean's Eleven directly when the filmmaker assembles a team of experts. The group includes record-setting diver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank as well as a Hollywood special-effects technician who worked on Evan Almighty (but now uses his powers for good instead of evil). James Bond’s gadget supplier Q could have provided the gear, which includes cameras disguised as rocks, underwater microphones and remote-controlled balloons.

Between capers, The Cove offers a retrospective of O’Barry’s dawning politicization and how he blames himself for the popularity of dolphins as aquarium performers. The Cove goes beyond the cruelty issues to argue not only that dolphins lack popularity as a Japanese foodstuff, but that their high levels of mercury make them unsafe for consumption as well. Even Taiji citizens balk at a PR plan to give away free dolphin meat to schools.

The Cove tends to overexplain its points. When O’Barry points out that the dolphin “grin” doesn’t necessarily indicate happiness, the soundtrack plays “Smile, though your heart is aching.” Fortunately, the film’s emphasis on action makes it both a more compelling narrative and a more engaging lesson. The Cove delivers a powerful message, but proves to be less a guilt trip than a “Mission: Impossible.”