Blackfish – A Serious Case of Michael Moore-itis

miloHey Pal:

Well, I finally saw the movie Blackfish. For readers who don’t know, Blackfish is a documentary about the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld and other such public aquariums where people watch these amazing beasts jump through hoops and swim with people.

Personally, I’ve never been to SeaWorld. I have no stake in the place one way or another. I came into the thing indifferent, and curious about what the film had to say.


I must say, the movie makes SeaWorld look bad. Very bad. Very very bad The gist of the argument is this:

  • Killer whales are emotionally sophisticated creatures who are exceptionally ill-suited for captivity.
  • The poor conditions at these places makes things even worse.
  • As a result, every so often, one of the killer whales goes crazy and attacks a trainer. There have been three deaths at SeaWorld since it opened in 1964.

It’s a very well made and moving film with a number of sympathetic and credible witnesses and experts, most notably numerous former SeaWorld trainers.


But there’s a problem.

The problem is that Blackfish suffers from a condition very common amongst documentaries these days. I call it Michael Moore-itis. This is a condition where objectivity was never a consideration. The movie is essentially made before the camera is turned on. The director is on a mission and pounds his/her point into you with such relentless force you feel used and violated when it’s done.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a point of view. Making arguments is something we all do every day.  But when it comes to tackling big issues, I value journalistic principles of showing all sides of the story. When a documentary fails to do this I spend the whole time wondering about the information I’m not getting. It’s distracting and ultimately makes me trust the filmmaker less. I keep thinking – what’s the other side of this?

For instance, in the case of Blackfish, our outrage hinges on the fact that three people have been killed. Fair enough. That’s definitely not good. But on the flip side, we are talking about KILLER whales. There are parks like these all around the world. They’ve been operating for 50 years. How many tens of thousands of times have trainers frolicked with these beasts? Perhaps the real miracle is that there has been ONLY three deaths. Seems like a hell of a track record, all things considered.

whale on deck

Maybe the problem isn’t necessarily whales in captivity. Maybe we should just get the people out of their pools.

And then there’s the other argument. It’s an oldie but still a goodie if you ask me, and it applies to any facility that holds wild animals in captivity: by giving all people the opportunity to see beautiful creatures with our own eyes, we cultivate a wide-spread love for the natural world and a desire to maintain it. For instance, if you approach me on a city street asking for money to stop turtle abuse in Africa, I have to confess I’m almost certainly going to keep walking. But if you show me some turtles in a zoo, then point me to a nearby table about turtle abuse in Africa, damn right I’m putting my spare change in the jar.

I know what fans of Blackfish are thinking. They’re thinking:

  • This latter argument was, in fact, given air time in the movie.
  • SeaWorld refused to comment for the film, so the “other side” was given a chance and chickened out, probably because they’re guilty as hell.

Here are my responses:

  • The latter argument is given about 30 seconds in the last two minutes of the movie. It is way too late to toss out that little bone and have it mean anything.
  • Yes, SeaWorld totally should have commented. Say something, for Pete’s sake! However, it is possible that SeaWorld was legally prohibited from commenting. This would be the situation if there were still open legal cases about the incidents depicted. Also, SeaWorld knew damn well its spokesperson would have been edited to look like the world’s biggest asshole, no matter what. They might have felt it best to see if the movie went anywhere, then respond if they had to.

Which is just what happened. The movie was a hit and SeaWorld launched a counter campaign, including putting an open letter into major newspapers around the country and on their website. It’s here:

Also, the family of one of the trainers who has been killed – and whose story forms the backbone of Blackfish – has expressed its concerns about the movie. You can read their statement here:

I would urge our many reader to watch Blackfish. But I would also urge her/them to read these two statements, and perhaps others, for some different perspectives.

Then decide how you feel about killer whales in captivity and the places that hold them.

Let me make one thing very clear:

I am not defending SeaWorld. As I said, I have no stake in the place. I have no plans to go there. I really don’t care about it.

What I am defending is essential journalistic principles of getting all sides of an issue and letting viewers/readers decide for themselves. Ultimately, your message has greater credibility when you do.

Later, Pal.



2 responses to “Blackfish – A Serious Case of Michael Moore-itis

  1. I like this post . Found myself nodding my head. Not because i have seen this movie but because I have felt that way warching other documentaries…mostly Michael Moore, I guess.
    While he raises worthwhile points on important issues, most of which are easy to agree on, they do seem to be very one sided and has the effect of losing the power of the message.

  2. One of my favourite documentaries is “My Kid Could Paint That.” The reason is the grappling of the filmmaker with his beliefs about the topic. You hear him discuss the events unfolding, how he is responding, and how he is struggling with the content (sorry to be so vague, but I don’t want to give it away).
    I am interested in this story but know how easily I am swayed by good editing. Michael Moore is an evil genius. When I finished watching Fahrenheit 911, I was convinced that Bush was told, while reading to children, that the twin towers were about to be bombed and then he continued to read. That is obviously not how it happened but good editing had me convinced. It is the task of the documentarian to feed the information to the viewer but allow them to form their own conclusions (leading to the “rightful” conclusion in a subtle way). I now am a little skeptical of this one.
    Excellent post!! I love the way this one was written.

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