(2021) Nature Documentary (Bleecker Street) Joseph George, Joshua Zeman, John Hildebrand, John Calambokidis, Christopher W. Clark, Ana Sirovic, Bill Watkins, David Rothenberg, Bruce Mate, Daniel Palacios, Robert Dziak, Vinal Virga, Kate Micucci, Cate Muret. Directed by Joshua Zeman
In 1989 as the Cold War came to an end, technology used to monitor Soviet submarine movement detected something unusual; whale song on the 52 Hz range, much higher than what whales normally communicate on. Marine biologist Bill Watkins tracked the sound for some fifteen years afterwards, noting that the sound came from a single whale with nary a reply.
After a 2004 New York Times article, the imagination of the public was captured. While scientists wondered if this might signal the existence of a heretofore undiscovered species of whale, the public began to see 52, as it was popularly known, as a symbol for the increasing isolation people were feeling in these tech-savvy times, and celebrating their own uniqueness. Artwork, songs, essays and even tattoos were generated by folks who were captivated by the story of a cetacean, endlessly searching the ocean, calling out and waiting for a response that never came.
Few were as captivated as documentary filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) who wanted to find 52, which as one scientist put it, “finding a needle in a haystack would have considerably better odds.” He put together a campaign to fund an expedition, but could only raise enough for an expedition for seven days.
The film chronicles the expedition, and adds quite a bit of background material, ranging from the effect of giant container ships on whales (their passing through the shipping lanes creates a kind of noise pollution that makes it nearly impossible fo the whales, who rely on sonar, to communicate) to the ravages of the whaling industry (not for the faint of heat or weak of stomach) and the effect of 52 on popular culture. Comedian Kate Micucci contributes a song, and perhaps most compelling of all, musician David Rothenberg jams with the whales on clarinet.
Overall the movie is a bit disjointed. The story flow just isn’t there as Zeman goes off on tangents that at times feel like filler. The best parts of the movie, other than Rothenberg’s “jam sessions,” is watching the scientists go about their business, and their excitement at the prospect of finding the answer to a question that previously had none. You might want to watch the movie all the way to the end – there is a graceful coda that is uplifting and might just put a smile on your face.
We have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, even those in the animal protection business can sometimes attribute emotions to animals that they may or may not be able to feel. There’s no way to truly know if 52 feels loneliness; what does he/she have to compare it with, after all? But be that as it may, this is a truly fascinating documentary that is well worth the visit.
The movie is currently in theaters, but will be available on most major streaming platforms beginning Friday July 16th.
REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and uplifting. Always interesting to watch scientists in their element.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not presented in a really organized manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some upsetting animal cruelty images and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonardo di Caprio, who contributed $50,000, was given credit as an executive producer. Much of the rest of the funding came from a Kickstarter campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Chimera Strain