Louie Psihoyos' The Cove may be the first heist film in which the heist in question is the shooting of the film itself. It is the story of documentary filmmakers who were so dedicated to exposing the truth about dophin slaughter that they were willing to risk arrest and worse to capture it on camera. The resulting film not only touches the heart, but starts the adrenaline flowing. Many big-time Hollywood directors ought to be jealous of the film's tense, thrilling action scenes.
Those same directors might find the eerie setting familiar: an apparently charming, quaint town that's hiding a big secret. Walk around and you'll see statues, mosaics, murals and other tributes to whales and dolphins. But the town is not only capturing dolphins for captivity, but slaughtering thousands of them, often selling their mercury-heavy meat in the guise of other fish.
Welcome to Taiji, Japan, where all your paranoid fantasies come true. The fishermen commit the slaughter in secret, in a remote cove. If you try to see what goes on there, you'll be harassed and arrested on any charge possible. The fishermen, mayor and police are all in on the conspiracy. As activist Ric O'Barry drives into town with a surgical mask on his face, he seems a bit crazy, talking about fisherman who want to kill him (his colleagues have been killed during previous protest efforts). But soon, we see cars following him and the film crew, and various spies videotaping them on the side of the road. People really are after him.
So the activists embark on a dangerous undercover mission to steal the footage they need. Like any good heist, there's a crack team of specialists including divers, gadget men extreme athletes. Using thermal cameras and night vision, they plant hidden cameras, and capture all the drama of the operation on video.
O'Barry, the former dolphin trainer on Flipper became a dolphin-rights advocate after realizing how intelligent the animals were and witnessing the suicide of one of the Flipper dolphins who became depressed in captivity. He has been trying for sometime to bring attention to the slaughter that occurs in the cove. Psihoyos himself tells the story of his trips to Taiji with the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) while O'Barry and other experts layout the case for dolphin rights and against captivity and fish with high mercury levels.
The resulting film both makes its political points very well and contains a thrilling narrative thrust that sets it apart from the average political documentary. By highlighting just how hard it was to show what it shows, The Cove makes itself all the more compelling, and its issue all the more pressing.
The Cove's nature demands it be assembled from different footage shot on different cameras, so of course it doesn't have a 100-percent consistent ideal image. But Lionsgate's DVD presents it well, in an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio that matches the main cameras it was shot on, and most of the footage pops with accurate colors and details.
The underwater photography of dolphins and/or free-divers contains beautiful interplay between shades of blue and light reflections. There is also old footage shot on film mixed in with modern-day material shot on various HD cameras or whatever was handy. While similar to a night-cam in its lack of detail, the undercover thermal camera creates a smooth, surreal, contrasty picture that sometimes resembles a camera negative. Of course we get some gain noise during low-light shots and the hidden camera footage is sometimes blocky and/or lower-resolution, but only a tech-obsessed dweeb would try to fault the film or the DVD authors for the issue.
The DVD presents the film with 5.1 surround and stereo English Dolby Digital tracks, and optional English and Spanish subtitles. There are also burnt-in English subtitles for spoken Japanese and unclear English audio. (When on, the Spanish subtitles appear at the top of the screen when these subtitles appear.) I watched the film in surround and sampled the stereo track, and both included well-balanced audio, barring some low-quality undercover recordings. The surround track is very similar to the stereo track for most of the film, but does prove superior during some nice underwater sequences.
The DVD's extras are entertaining, even if they don't add much insight to the film's production, which the film itself covers.
The Cove: Mercury Rising is the supplemental centerpiece. An 18-minute documentary about the effect of mercury poisoning, the well-made short builds on material from The Cove, first showing an anonymous experiment conducted by Japanese doctors whose mercury levels skyrocketed after they started eating a regular diet of tuna, which is considered to be a safe fish (levels rise as you go up the food chain). After that, Robert Kennedy, Jr. and others claim that vaccinations with low levels of mercury compound thiomersal may be the cause of autism in children. Laying out their sympathetic case, Kennedy et al. imply that the Center for Disease Control is part of a vast conspiracy to poison kids with vaccinations and give them autism. Without getting into an extended debate on the subject, I would encourage anyone who watches the documentary to research the science related to the matter, as there is no actual evidence supporting the claims.
You could easily miss the Audio Commentary--I almost did--because it isn't listed in the special features section, but on the set-up page. Why DVD authors, why do you put audio commentaries on the setup page? (You can also access it with you audio button, of course.) Director Louie Psihoyos and Producer Fisher Stevens discuss the film and elaborate on many details that couldn't be included in the film for the sake of time and flow. Stevens acts as a sort of interviewer at times, while Psihoyos shares the fruits of his research. Psihoyos also reveals that he was "dragged kicking and screaming" to include himself in the movie, after people saw the making-of footage and explained to him that he should turn the documentary into a thriller.
Three Deleted Scenes are all on one 10-minute video title, and it's pretty obvious why they were cut from the film, as none of them contribute to the main thrust of the plot. The longest scene is a more in-depth look at the Surfers for Cetaceans organization and the protest they staged at the cove. The second goes on a detour to show O'Barry disguise himself as a woman to avoid Taiji authorities. Finally, a montage displays sites and activities from the Taiji Whale Festival.
The five-minute Freediving video doesn't really have anything to do with the film's subject matter, but I'll allow it as it features some pretty cool-looking shots of the crew's underwater specialists dancing with dolphins and blowing ring-shaped bubbles and swimming through them.
Special OPS Cameras contains behind-the-scenes info on five of the special undercover cameras used in the film. Since much of the The Cove is about its own making, some of the information is redundant, but we do get more detail on the cameras and also insight on why the directors felt that the shots were important. (The helicopter camera, for example, was used after the covert photography for some needed overhead shots. I recommend hitting the "play all" button, as some of the clips are rather short.
The Theatrical Trailer is well-edited and captures the film's excitement and ominous undertones. And if you missed the 298 trailers that play automatically when you start the DVD, the Also from Lionsgate feature will play them all for you again.
The Cove is an exciting, informative and emotional experience that works both as a political activism documentary and as an entertaining heist movie. Lionsgate's DVD presents the film well and includes some entrtaining extras.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.