Living in a modestly sized city like Portland can have its drawbacks for culture vultures. Art exhibits, live theater, indie films—sometimes it's months, even years, between reading about these things in New York magazine and seeing them in person. In the intervening period, you can't avoid the endless commentary, hype, reviews and chatter online until it's impossible to approach the work with unjaded eyes. But occasionally—occasionally—this period of purgatory has its advantages, and Blackfish is such an occasion.
Blackfish is about killer whales in captivity. More specifically, it's about why killer whales shouldn't be in captivity. The documentary tells the story of Tilikum, the 6-ton bull orca that killed veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. At the time, SeaWorld claimed Brancheau was at fault for wearing her hair in a ponytail, which it said Tilikum grabbed for fun before dragging her into the water. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite paints a different story, that of a whale torn from its family as a 3-year-old. (This is not just bleeding-heart stuff: One of the men who captured him—a crusty old diver who looks like he hunts sharks with his bare hands—is almost in tears as he describes the event and calls it, "The worst thing that I've ever done.") It's also the story of a traumatized whale that killed two other people before Brancheau, and the story of a billion-dollar corporation that systematically sought to keep its staff and customers ignorant of the evidence that these highly intelligent, emotionally sensitive mammals don't so much like living in swimming pools, being taken from their families or having people surf on their backs—and sometimes they express that violently.
Plainly, it's an advocacy film. And it's a brilliant one—nail-biting, upsetting, maddening and at times even uplifting (most of the trainers really do love these giant animals). You will walk out thinking, "Seriously: Fuck SeaWorld," and go home to do some angry Googling. But the thing about advocacy films is that you will also walk out wondering just how much was accurate and balanced. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and Cowperthwaite features only one former trainer who even mildly challenges the film's party line. And that's when you can really appreciate that Blackfish debuted at Sundance in January and has been screening in New York and L.A. for a month. SeaWorld has already issued a critique, the filmmakers have issued a critique of that critique, and plenty of others have weighed in. And even with all the lawyers and PR people that 50 years of selling orca plush toys can buy, SeaWorld's rebuttal looks weak, and, frankly, the company still comes off looking like a bunch of assholes. Blackfish may push an agenda, but after a month of debate, it still seems like an agenda worth pushing. Now spare a thought for the poor folk of Anchorage, Alaska, who won't get to see this fine piece of filmmaking for another two months.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: Blackfish is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, Aug. 9, at Cinema 21.