In accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Parasite, Bong Joon Ho famously challenged his listeners to overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, in order to encounter an amazing world of movies. In parallel fashion, one of my goals as a film critic is to aid viewers in surmounting their instinctual aversion to the word documentary.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 would be an excellent gateway drug to this genre. Director Joshua Zeman has crafted an engrossing scientific detective story, pulling his audience along for a fascinating ride.
Perhaps I’m too curmudgeonly for my own good, but I can’t help comparing The Loneliest Whale to a certain Marvel movie that dropped this weekend. I’m willing to bet Zeman’s budget was less than 1% of Black Widow’s, yet there’s 100 times more suspense in watching biologists at work in the Pacific, than in seeing Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh throw punches against a green screen.
The whale of the title is part of a 30-year-old puzzle. In the early 1990s, the US Navy declassified recordings picked up on its anti-submarine array. These revealed a single whale emitting calls at the unique frequency of 52 hertz in the northern Pacific. (Other cetacean species in its vicinity chat at much lower frequencies.)
Never spotted, a mythology formed around this solitary whale. Songs were composed and performed, as alienated humans in our hyperconnected world projected their emotions onto this mystery whale dubbed 52.
Zeman, living and working in NYC, was one such person. When a new recording of 52 was discovered after a decade of radio silence, Zeman was instrumental in gathering a crew of leading researchers to try and spot him or her.
The surprises begin with where the signal was picked up. Previously detected off the shores of Alaska and British Columbia, 52 was feeding further south, near Santa Barbara, California. In a vessel aptly named Truth, Zeman and the scientists set off, with funding for a weeklong voyage.
Analogies to Captain Ahab and Moby Dick are justifiably thrown about, though the obsessive pursuit in this case is of a healthy, non-murderous type. When the biologists discern that 52 is hanging out with fin and blue whales, they strive to attach sticky little AV monitors to as many of these whales as possible, the better to hone in on 52. As you can imagine, with creatures that surface for the briefest of moments, this is far easier said than done.
As an ex-biology major, I’m glad the façade of detached objectivity is no longer felt to be necessary in fieldwork. (Of course, publishing peer-reviewed journal articles is another matter entirely.) It’s clear the researchers are both thrilled by their quest and love the mammals they’re studying. And how could they not? As we learn during engaging, informative interludes, whales are not only sublimely beautiful, but they’re highly intelligent, ultrasocial beings. Their songs can travel a jaw-dropping 13,000 miles, but are too often rendered inaudible by container ship traffic. We’re tangibly shown this, as spectrograms with nicely delineated whale song denigrate into screens of unreadable noise with a ship’s approach. One of the scientists usefully compares this to enjoying a meal in a restaurant with friends, when overloud music makes conversation impossible.
It’s astonishing how much our understanding of cetaceans has advanced in my lifetime. It was a mere 55 years ago that whale song was first discovered by humans, then popularized by mass imprints of LPs and 45s by National Geographic and commercial ventures. The popular grasp of this non-human cultural sophistication lent an added push to “save the whales” activism.
The Loneliest Whale adheres pretty closely to the first-person documentary book of style, with its mix of knowledgeable talking heads, Zeman’s voiceover, illustrated history, overhead drone shots, and underwater footage. But the images of these behemoths are so affecting that I didn’t mind. And like the best works of suspense, it all leads to a satisfying resolution, just not the ending that we, or Zeman, anticipated.
(The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is now playing in select theaters.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )