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A Documentary in Name Only

Blackfish vs. SeaWorld.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The conventional wisdom in Tinseltown is that the biggest Oscar snub of the year went to Robert Redford, who failed to get a Best Actor nod. The Hollywood legend delivered a highly praised and mostly wordless performance of a man fighting for his life on a sinking boat in All Is Lost. But much further down the Oscar ballot, there might have been an even bigger stunner about troubled oceangoers: The save-the-whales documentary Blackfish was not nominated for an Academy Award. 

Hey, Hollywood—where’s the love?

Hey, Hollywood—where’s the love?

Of the 15 films shortlisted for Best Documentary, Blackfish was the second-highest grossing, earning a respectable $2 million in theaters, and might have been the most-watched documentary of the year. In addition to being a hit on Netflix, the rights were also bought by CNN Films, and the news network has broadcast the film several times.

What’s more, Blackfish seems perfectly targeted to liberal Hollywood sensibilities: It’s a tale of how corporate greed resulted in the abuse of some of nature’s most majestic animals and a handful of tragic deaths. As an added bonus, Blackfish purports to expose the underlying rot at SeaWorld, one of America’s most popular theme parks. 

The fact that it didn’t get nominated may have something to do with the PR battle the filmmakers have been waging with SeaWorld, which has raised serious concerns about the documentary’s veracity. As the commercial prospects and audiences for documentaries have grown in recent years, Hollywood may be wising up to the fact the genre has become a dumping ground for dubious liberal agitprop. It’s also worth asking what CNN—“the most trusted name in news”—is doing backing an obviously tendentious film.

If you set out to make a movie about the problems of keeping whales in captivity and possible SeaWorld malfeasance, there’s no shortage of material to work with. Over the last few decades, there have been dozens of publicly documented troubling and dangerous incidents involving animal trainers working with killer whales. These include four deaths, notably the highly publicized killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Three of the four killings were done by a single of SeaWorld’s whales, Tilikum, and it’s a legitimate question whether SeaWorld did enough to protect its employees. In 2012 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued regulations preventing trainers from performing with whales close-up and unprotected. This was a key component of SeaWorld’s shows, which involved trainers riding whales and being shot into the air as the whales surfaced.

SeaWorld maintains that they’re being unfairly singled out by OSHA. Many other potentially dangerous forms of entertainment have escaped OSHA’s purview—65 NASCAR drivers, for instance, have died in fatal accidents, yet it’s difficult to imagine federal regulators imposing speed limits on the sport. SeaWorld is still appealing OSHA’s regulations in federal court, and they have good reason to think they were treated unfairly. In January, OSHA announced that Lara Padgett, the employee who led the agency’s six-month investigation concluding SeaWorld was guilty of “willful” safety violations, was under internal investigation. That’s because photos of Padgett surfaced online showing her schmoozing with the director of Blackfish and a number of former SeaWorld employees featured in the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last year. 

The overarching message of Blackfish isn’t that SeaWorld is guilty of creating an unsafe work environment—the film is in fact an 83-minute jeremiad against keeping whales in captivity. Given the size and intelligence of these animals, that’s not an entirely unsympathetic notion. However, there’s no argument the film won’t entertain to advance its point, no matter how absurd. To make the case that these animals must be respected, Lori Marino, Ph.D., a neuroscience and behavioral biology expert at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, is brought on to inform viewers that whales have a “sense of self, a sense of social bonding much more complex than other mammals, including humans.” There’s a lot about whales we don’t understand, but you’d be forgiven for being skeptical that whales have a level of cognizance that René Descartes would appreciate. 

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