Eco-activist documentaries don’t get much more compelling than “The Cove,” an impassioned piece of advocacy filmmaking that follows “Flipper” trainer-turned-marine crusader Richard O’Barry in his efforts to end dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Casting a very wide net, this powerful polemic is simultaneously a love letter to a beloved species, an eye-opening primer on worldwide dolphin captivity, a playful paranoid thriller and a work of deep-seated (if sometimes hot-headed) moral outrage. The devastating final images demand to be seen on the bigscreen, though cable exposure won’t blunt their impact.

There’s deep remorse in O’Barry’s voice as he recalls how he caught and trained the five dolphins that played Flipper in the popular 1960s TV show. Since then, he has devoted his life to speaking out against all forms of dolphin captivity, even for educational/entertainment purposes. O’Barry argues that theme parks like Sea World, with their deafening human voices and tight confines, are no place for these sound-sensitive, free-spirited mammals — an idea underscored by magisterial shots of dolphins at play on the open seas.

While those who aren’t animal lovers may quibble with the way the film all but exalts the dolphin as a higher life form, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something uniquely barbaric about the destruction of this exceptionally intelligent, human-friendly species. And no form of cetacean abuse angers O’Barry more than the mass harpooning that occurs in the Japanese port town of Taiji, where fishermen use sonar to lure the dolphins into a cove that becomes their deathtrap.

The confrontational O’Barry, who has been arrested many times for trying to free captive dolphins, is practically Taiji’s Public Enemy No. 1. Pic is larded with footage of fishermen barring him from entering the cove, where all photography and recording have been banned.

Produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society (of which director Louie Psihoyos and exec producer Jim Clark are members), “The Cove” tells the story of O’Barry’s mission to obtain hard evidence of what goes on in Taiji. Mark Monroe’s clear, intelligent text traces a conspiracy built of many parts, all of which can be chalked up to human greed or stupidity: the widespread mercury poisoning that has rendered dolphin meat almost inedible; the mislabeling of dolphin meat so as to unload a product for which there is little human demand; and the refusal of the Intl. Whaling Commission (which has banned O’Barry as a member) to protect cetaceans from commercial whaling.

Midway through, the pic morphs into a heist movie of sorts, as O’Barry and Psihoyos enlist a crack team of activists and divers to get past the tight security and plant hidden cameras in the bay. Despite the fun thriller riffs in J. Ralph’s fine score and the crew’s ingeniously subversive methods, this section is arguably the film’s least effective: The night-vision footage of their exploits is hard to follow, and despite the 24-hour presence of Taiji security, a sense of danger never really takes hold. But the shocking footage they obtain turns out to be well worth their trouble, ending “The Cove” on a note of truly harrowing pure cinema.

Tech package is first-rate, benefiting from Psihoyos’ experience as a photographer for National Geographic. Coverage of the events described is superbly comprehensive and cut together with forceful clarity by editor Geoffrey Richman.

The Cove

  • Production: An Oceanic Preservation Society presentation of a Jim Clark production, in association with Diamond Docs and SkyFish Films. Produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen, Fisher Stevens. Executive producer, Clark. Co-producer, Olivia Ahnemann. Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Written by Mark Monroe.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Brook Aitken; editor, Geoffrey Richman; music, J. Ralph; additional music, Matter; sound, Kelly Garry, Greg "Moondog" Mooney, Jorge Plana, Edward Thacker; sound designer, Sound One; supervising sound editor, Glenfield Payne; re-recording mixers, Reilly Steele, Glenfield Payne; animation, Ice Cold Milk, Damon Ciarelli, Boo Wong; associate producer, Charles Hambleton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2009. Running time: 94 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, David Rastovich, Scott Baker.
  • Music By: