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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Flipper")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning. No one you see, is smarter than he. And we know Flipper…

GROSS: Ric O'Barry, the man who captured and trained the dolphins that played "Flipper" in the 1960s TV series, now feels partially responsible for a trend he's come to oppose: the capture of dolphins to be trained for aquariums around the world. But most of all, he opposes the slaughter of dolphins, and that's why he went to a cove in the Japanese village, Taiji, to document the slaughter of thousands of dolphins. The new documentary "The Cove," follows O'Barry to Taiji. We'll talk with O'Barry and the filmmaker, Louie Psihoyos, in a few minutes.

First, our film critic David Edelstein has a review of the "The Cove."

DAVID EDELSTEIN: You measure an activist documentary in two ways: first, whether it evokes a world, whether it brings the issues to burning life instead of giving you just talking heads. Second, whether it whips you up to join the fight or at least send a righteous e-mail. Director Louie Psihoyos's "The Cove" is gangbusters propaganda on both counts.

The setting, off Taiji on the rural coast of Japan, is near-mythic in its beauty and mystery, and the act under scrutiny has a mythic horror. The film's second half is built like a caper picture, a white-knuckle mission by a team of idealists. They attempt to outwit a pack of greedy and vaguely demonic killers with spies everywhere. Hollywood could hardly have contrived a more dynamic scenario.

The protagonist of "The Cove" is a man who has sinned in his own eyes and has spent much of his life trying to atone. He's Ric O'Barry — in the early 1960s, the world's most famous dolphin trainer. He captured the five dolphins that became TV's Flipper - that frisky, laughing, clapping, backward-dancing Rin Tin Tin of the Florida Keys. O'Barry looks a lot like the late Richard Widmark, lean and haunted. Now, he's devoted his life to liberating dolphins. When he speaks about the impact of captivity on the mammals, he doesn't sound like a showboater, and what might seem like new age-y talk about dolphin intelligence is pointed up with footage that left me haunted, too. That smile, says O'Barry, is nature's greatest deception. Dolphins smile even when they're crying on the inside.

It's a billion-dollar industry, capturing dolphins for seaquariums, and its center is Taiji. But it's the dolphins who don't look like Flipper and won't attract top dollar that suffer the far more gruesome fate.

The Japanese representative to the International Whaling Commission and sundry lackeys deny, deny, deny that any large-scale cruelty occurs and minus pictures of actual butchery, who can prove them wrong? O'Barry and his allies need footage, what they call a game changer. Here he talks about the place itself, the secluded unreachable cove.

(Soundbite of ocean)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RIC O'BARRY (Dolphin Activist): It's a dolphin's worst nightmare right there. Hundreds of thousands of dolphins have died there. You'll see the signs - keep out, danger. There are fishermen walking around these hills with knives. This is a national park. The fishermen told me, they said if the world finds out what goes on here we'll be shut down. Can you imagine that? They actually told us that. We need to get in there and film exactly what happens. We need to know the truth.

EDELSTEIN: The assembly of his team — divers, technicians, getaway drivers - is stirring stuff. When brilliant technicians at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic build fake rocks to hold video cameras, you'll forgive them anything, even "Star Wars's" Jar-Jar Binks.

Diver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank models her underwater-breathing techniques. She'll plant the cameras. And she has a personal stake. Weeks before the mission, we see her watch a bleeding dolphin that somehow escaped the cove as it fights the tide and slowly expires in the waves. And as she weeps, Taiji fishermen point at her and laugh.

The movie reminds us repeatedly that the vast majority of the Japanese public has no idea what's going on, but it does suggest the Japanese government bribes smaller nations to join it in the fight against whaling restrictions, as if it's the prerogative of a great empire. The killing, when finally seen, is indescribable, the water of the cove turning from bright blue to a deep, dark red. You're almost grateful, though, because the carnage itself is partially obscured.

The end of "The Cove" is as rousing as anything from Hollywood. Manipulative? Sure. But isn't that fitting? Profit has driven an entire village to massacre dolphins and keep its work hidden. Now comes the exciting documentary, likely to be a crossover international hit. You can't get away with killing Flipper. It's the bad guys, in the end, who are dead in the water.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed the new documentary "The Cove." We'll meet the filmmaker and the activist he follows after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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