Does this amount to a kind of marine slavery? That's certainly the thinking of Ric O'Barry, the guy who captured and trained the five bottlenoses used on television's Flipper. After seeing what Flipper wrought, O'Barry dedicated himself to freeing captive dolphins, an advocacy that has earned him numerous arrests and a rep in some quarters as a whack job.
Such is the eloquence of Louie Psihoyos' film that as The Cove progresses, the wild-eyed O'Barry begins to look less like a zealot than a rational man who sees the global picture.
The fishermen of Taiji - a town that looks like a marine theme park - interfere with dolphin migratory routes by disorienting the acoustically sensitive creatures with percussive sounds. Then the fishermen corral the mammals, separating parents from calves, and sell the choicest specimens to the highest bidder.
It's what happens to the dolphins that don't go on to be the rock stars of aquatic parks that most concerns Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer and amateur scuba diver who conveys his alarm that his favorite reefs have been overfished and degraded. When O'Barry alerts Psihoyos that there looks to be a major cover-up in Taiji, where the city fathers have cordoned off a naturally fortified cove with barbed wire and aggressive watchmen, it pricks the filmmaker's curiosity.
Psihoyos assembles an elite squad, a cross between Navy SEALs and Ocean's 11, to expose the secret of the cove. His team includes free divers, audio engineers, risk junkies, and FX specialists who create fake rocks in which to embed digital microphones and camera. The stupendously beautiful, and shocking, footage they capture is the result not of an artist's eye and ear, but of neutral surveillance equipment artfully deployed.
What Team Psihoyos uncovers will not be revealed here. But it will incite rage, excite activism, conceivably rewrite international fishing policy, and almost certainly earn an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Those faint of heart (and under 14) probably should not see The Cove. But everybody else should. Apart from The Hurt Locker, you won't see a better thriller this year.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/