Emergency calls are, by their very nature, dramatic.
But one made on Feb. 24, 2010, to the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Florida, gave the operator pause.
Caller: "A whale has eaten one of the trainers."
Dispatcher: "A whale ate one of the trainers?"
Caller: "That's correct."
3 stars = Good
PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images.
Unspoken or unknown at the time was the fact the whale at Orlando's SeaWorld had killed before, and that the death would touch off finger-pointing and lawsuits. It also would reignite decades-old debates about keeping whales captive and isolated for hours in tiny dark pools rather than allowing them to swim free in the ocean.
The documentary "Blackfish" thoughtfully and methodically examines these issues although without SeaWorld, which repeatedly declined to be interviewed. That tilts the movie in a way that is regrettable but unavoidable and probably predictable.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite speaks with many former trainers, employs footage that shows other trainers in danger and traces the history of Tilikum, the orca that took the life of Dawn Brancheau, 40, in early 2010. She died of blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and torso and drowning.
In 1983, when he was roughly 2 years old, Tilikum was plucked from the North Atlantic and taken to SeaLand of the Pacific, a now-closed aquarium east of Victoria, British Columbia. That is where he killed a 24-year-old female trainer before being sold and shipped to SeaWorld where the stage was set for further tragedy.
Most adults and, certainly, children think of SeaWorld as a vacation destination with whales leaping into the air on command and splashing the lucky patrons in the front rows.
But "Blackfish" makes a case that whales mourn their young when separated and do not belong in tiny pools when they should be swimming hundreds of miles a week in open water.
The documentary not only discusses the fatal cases but the incidents in which trainers were, in one case, grabbed by the foot and held under water for 60 or 80 seconds at a time -- not by Tilikum but another whale. "Blackfish" has footage of that scary, 12-minute encounter.
If you are even a casual TV viewer or news consumer, you might remember the story that initially surfaced about how Brancheau's ponytail was the unintentional bait for the whale.
Former SeaWorld trainer John Jett, among others, disputes that. "The industry has a vested interest in spinning this so that the animals continue to appear like cuddly teddy bears that are completely safe. That sells a lot of Shamu dolls. That sells a lot of tickets at the gate."
Despite the inflammatory topic at hand, "Blackfish" takes a measured tone with the material. I've been to SeaWorld probably twice and have old photos of Shamu performing but given this movie, I don't think I will ever go again.
Even though it's obviously missing SeaWorld's official response and rationale, "Blackfish" does what a good documentary should.
It takes you behind the scenes, assembles people who are knowledgeable or were witnesses to key events (often with video proof), asks important questions and fuels further debate about whether creatures should be caged for our enjoyment and education.
Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.moviereviews