Blackfish is an excellent documentary with ambitious intent. Not only to identify a problem, but also to change preconceptions and behavior.
For the most part, it succeeds.
Blackfish would love to see SeaWorld and other marine theme parks release all orcas, might even prefer to see such parks close entirely, but that is not the documentary’s immediate objective. We are. As in the communal we, the we that has, will or someday could plan a vacation to attend SeaWorld or the other parks of its ilk.
To that end, at least three times Director Gabriela Coperthwaite emphasizes that orcas are worth millions of dollars, even as she shows us lines of park goers moving around, into or out of SeaWorld, Loro Parque or Sea Land. It is a resonant visual statement that works each time she makes it. Who establishes the dolphins’ market value? We do. How can we decrease it? By no longer attending these parks.
Coperthwaite condemns park goers mostly by implication, but she accuses SeaWorld and other marine parks with less subtlety. She turns a critical lens on the parks, delving deeply to decipher spin and make us angry. Through a deft touch and impeccable pacing, she succeeds. I cannot imagine any viewer trusting SeaWorld’s media releases or public relations again.
Coperthwaite pays constant attention to her belief that the captivity of killer whales is inhumane imprisonment, but she also presents at least one counter argument, if with less focus. Given that she aims to persuade, it is a wise choice. Just as it is wise that she doesn’t directly rebut the counter, choosing instead to let its stupidity speak for itself.
Equally powerfully, the director limits her scope. She never criticizes all zoos or other attractions, nor even most of SeaWorld’s offerings. She maintains primary focus on killer whales and a secondary lens on any display that has dangerous animals interact with human beings. Her restraint makes Blackfish more powerful, because it means the documentary never overreaches, never extends its message too far.
For all of that, Blackfish is not flawless. The movie makes several statements of fact (wild orcas live twice as long as those in captivity, less than 1% of wild male orcas have the floppy dorsal fins that plaque 100% of captive whales, etc). The statements themselves are not problematic, but that Coperthwaite never offers citation or evidence of their veracity is. Blackfish aims for journalistic and academic integrity, but the mandates of academia require proof of such declarations. That this film doesn’t offer any makes us question whether or not the director is sensationalizing the issue so as to evoke stronger emotion.
On balance, however, Blackfish remains a terrific documentary. If enough people see it, it is good enough to have an impact.