Most documentaries strive for drama, and a few, like Man on Wire, achieve suspense. But The Cove is the rare documentary specifically designed as a thriller. It follows Richard O'Barry, a renegade knight of the marine world, as he attempts to get near a heavily guarded cove in Taiji, Japan, where the secret killing of dolphins for food and profit has been going on for years. O'Barry intends to record this atrocity for the world to see, and so he and his team sneak in at night to plant cameras, hiding them inside of fake rocks. O'Barry has the fevered look of Richard Widmark, and the cove-infiltration scenes give you that full-on, night-vision-goggles, look, we've been spotted! thriller treatment. They're exciting to watch, though you can feel how hard the movie is working to turn a vital ecological subject into crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Nearly 50 years ago, O'Barry trained the dolphins on Flipper, and he came to deplore their capture (one of the show's dolphins died in his arms from depression, he says). His crusade to rescue them comes off as both righteous and quixotic. The Cove doesn't always give you the facts you want (how harmful is the Taiji slaughter to the world dolphin population?). Yet its images of blood in the water are worth a thousand preachy words. The movie forces you to ask: Are some creatures really too sensitive and beautiful to kill? B+