Filmmakers adrenaline junkies uncover animal-rights atrocity in The Cove

The more jaded among us could argue that of all the animals facing abuse or extinction it’s really only the cute ones — like pandas seals or of course dolphins — that anyone kicks up a fuss over. The eco-documentary The Cove however offers a different perspective.

The film spends much of its time telling the story of its own creation as a team of crack-shot documentary filmmakers comes together around exposing the dark secret of the small Japanese village of Taiji where dolphins by the tens of thousands are captured. The cutest are sold into captivity the rest are herded into a hidden (and heavily guarded) cove to be routinely slaughtered for cheap meat. And so if dolphins’ natural charms make them so appealing to exploit there’s a certain dramatic justice that the same charms should drive us to protect them from slaughter.

Likewise Ric O’Barry who captured and trained the bottle-nosed stars of Flipper explains his inadvertent role in creating the multibillion-dollar captivity industry with a dramatically cohesive narrative. Decades ago he changed his ways to become the world’s foremost dolphin-rights activist devoting his life to atoning for his sins after his most beloved cetacean swam into his arms and committed suicide. Literally.

It’s this sense of the dramatic and the cinematic that elevates The Cove from an interesting public service statement to a great piece of filmmaking. When director Louie Psihoyos claims to have put together a veritable Ocean’s Eleven team to capture the slaughter on video you might think he’s joking. But once you see the special OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society naturally) team — featuring base-jumping adrenaline junkies ILM special effects magicians who create cameras that look like rocks former military espionage experts rock concert sound gurus and a Canadian team of world champion free divers — you realize this shit’s for real.

The breakneck editing pulse-pounding score and night-vision and thermal cameras complete the film’s transformation into a full-blown edge-of-your-seat thriller. It’s the sort of thing that would seem hopelessly manipulative in a documentary if the primary actors weren’t backing their bluster up onscreen every step of the way. With the team running from the police cutting through wire fences and timing the intervals between guard rotations to calculate the time their divers have to plant underwater listening devices Psihoyos is entirely justified in filming this story as a first-rate espionage flick because well it is. And it’s real. Right down to Heroes ’ Hayden Panettiere’s brief cameo as “Hayden Panettiere girl arrested by Japanese authorities for trespassing onto slaughter site.” It needs to be said: You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course the dolphins themselves matter most. They’re not a difficult creature to make look majestic but some of the cinematography here (especially during the free diving scenes) is stunningly beautiful and elicits as many tears as the film’s more devastating moments. When we finally see the slaughter footage the team successfully captures all pretenses and cinematic stylings disappear: We watch it in its brutal gut-wrenching simplicity. Psihoyos and his team know they’ve accomplished something important and they let it speak for itself.

This can be a painful movie to watch which is why you’ll be all the more grateful that it’s also excellent. The Cove presents as thrilling a ride as it does a profoundly upsetting reality. In doing both equally well it becomes one of the year’s strongest films.