The story's familiar by now. A tension-filled courthouse in Sanford. A tragic death and the killer's motives questioned. White against black. But this isn't about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it's the state of Florida against SeaWorld. The movie is "Blackfish," and it's a cautionary tale of the dangers of confining those meant to roam free.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite directed the eye-opening, sometimes-harrowing documentary structured around the life of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale. He was captured as a 2-year-old in 1983 and grew to his current length of 22 feet. In 2010, during the "Dine with Shamu" show at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum brutally killed chief trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of at least a dozen spectators. The tragedy spawned an investigation and subsequent court case.
A crestfallen cross between circus performer and prison inmate, the orca (another name for killer whale) Tilikum is a complicated being. His history unfolds in the movie as details emerge about possible contributing factors in Brancheau's death. When an orca expert suggests that events leading up to the tragedy began 20 years earlier, the filmmakers dutifully turn their attention and research to a point even further back: 39 years before, when SeaWorld began taking whales from one of their natural habitats near Puget Sound, Wash.
Cowperthwaite skillfully mixes interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, behind-the-scenes amateur video and archival footage of orca hunts and performances. A recording of a police interview with a park paramedic who was on the scene when Brancheau died makes you wonder why he exhibits such a patently callous attitude. Cowperthwaite is mindful about what's revealed and its timing, maintaining the film's tension and the feeling that another shocking discovery is about to jettison up from the depths.
"Blackfish" leaves no doubt that it is squarely against SeaWorld's practices. When it does present the views of the park's defenders (not often), they seem wishful and disconnected. "I can't imagine a life without SeaWorld," a former trainer declares, adding that he's certain that they can create a safe environment for the whales and their handlers. How they would accomplish that, he never explains. The movie acknowledges movements by PETA and other groups to release captive orcas, showing demonstrators with "Free Tili!" signs, a play on "Free Willy," the 1993 box office hit.
There's a simple, basic fact that sticks with you after you see this film, and it's that killer whales are accustomed to (perhaps even hard-wired for) swimming 100 miles a day in open waters. To accommodate this need, SeaWorld and similar parks would have to incur expenditures that would put them out of business. Instead, in what amounts to a large swimming pool, they contain a 6-ton, intelligent marine mammal that normally, with its exceedingly social pod of 15 whales (on average), roams vast swaths of ocean.
By mangling nature, "Blackfish" argues that SeaWorld is responsible for putting the sham in Shamu.