'Blackfish' review: Should all of Willy's friends be free?

'Blackfish'

'Blackfish' (July 24, 2013)

*** (out of four)

Can you think of a time in society when a tragedy has occurred and many tried to brush it off? When a powerful organization preferred to make no changes, so nothing was done and, lo and behold, it happened again?

Of course you can. (Resume gun control discussion ... now.) An instance I wasn't aware of, however, arrives in effective, upsetting form in “Blackfish,” which showcases how ocean-related amusement park negligence has resulted in trainer deaths that could have been prevented. If Tilikum could talk, he'd probably say that he prefers being called “Orca” to “killer whale,” and that he really doesn't appreciate being cooped up with whales who grind their teeth along his body (an aggressive technique called “raking”).

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary demonstrates how years of punishment and unhappiness turned Tilikum not into a crazed whale but a captive performer with no opportunity to release his man-made frustration. This whale and his sperm were worth a lot of money, though, so it's not especially shocking that Sea World refused to acknowledge the whale's role in deadly incidents or stop using his seed to breed. Their lies and cover-ups resemble the military's in “The Tillman Story.”

As you might expect, Sea World declined to comment for “Blackfish.”

Many former Sea World trainers sound off in the film, providing devastating anecdotes about the history of whale/human incidents in captivity of which they were not told when starting the job. While these folks' moral opposition to what they saw then and know now certainly matters, science makes an even larger impact. Cowperthwaite could have spent more time with neuroscientists to emphasize findings over feelings, an approach that would also extend to using courtroom proceedings as more than an after-thought.

But still. The footage here is chilling—a devastating precursor to last year's “Rust and Bone.” While the film doesn't reach the depth of “The Cove,” “Blackfish” will have anyone who sees it shaking their head and wondering how people didn't see several events, such as the death of expert trainer Dawn Brancheau and the severe injury to another trainer crushed between two whales, as accidents waiting to happen.

To analyze real-life tragedy we must understand it so we can prevent it (detail not pursued in last week's “Fruitvale Station”), Cowperthwaite justly argues. Not so we can sigh and hope it doesn't happen again.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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