Traditional, narrative film has remained more or less the same over the course of the last 10 years (save for the staggering number of remakes, sequels and adaptations that now populate our multiplexes). But this decade has brought a major evolution in the documentary feature, a genre that has grown not merely in visibility but in form as well, perpetually inching closer to a hybrid of reality and fiction. Stills from Robinson Devor's Zoo seemed like they could have been lifted from a Terrence Malick film, and March of the Penguins was as much a heavyweight summer blockbuster as the latest Spielberg or Terminator flick. Even more significant is the genre's transformation into a prime outlet for mainstream social and political activism; in the wake of An Inconvenient Truth's massive success in 2006, virtually everyone with a serious cause has sought to get his message heard not by takin' it to the streets, but by flooding our local movie theaters.
Like Gore's game-changing model, The Cove is as much a passionate display of eco-activism as it is a work of cinema. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, however, Psihoyos' film amounts to much more than an elaborate PowerPoint presentation, crafting a suspenseful narrative to complement the undeniably pertinent message. While many political documentaries seem to be thrown together by self-promoting hustlers, rather than genuine filmmakers and artists, The Cove actually feels like a film. It is expertly paced, beautifully photographed, and consistently compelling.
It also helps that The Cove's real-life narrative reaches surreal heights that even the world's greatest imaginations would envy; the film is a Haruki Murakami-cum-Scooby Doo mystery that revamps the adage about truth being stranger than fiction. To wit: "Life is ordinary in the picturesque, coastal Japanese village of Taiji. But a terrifying secret threatens to expose the townspeople and undermine their industry. A covert team of American filmmakers deploy a secret operation in order to uncover the shocking truth of what is really going on in that secluded lagoon... dolphin slaughter." Eerily similar to the cheesy paperback you brought with you to the beach last weekend, no?
Alas, The Cove is a real, honest-to-God depiction of the aforementioned summary, as superficially gripping as any well-told yarn, yet inspiring and thoroughly convincing as an attempt at social justice. Former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry heads the mission and occasionally goes to comically absurd lengths to penetrate the Japanese defenses, wearing goofy costumes and assigning his opponents memorable nicknames. His exaggerated behavior occasionally threatens to sabotage the case he so zealously presents. Unfortunately, the film's depiction of the Japanese borders on being cartoonishly racist, but I'm willing to accept it as a form of heroes-and-villains reductiveness rather than intentional prejudice. These Save-the-Whales folks mean business, and if they can create non-fiction film as stirring as this, then I'll happily go along for the (emotionally manipulative) ride.