All's Well That Ends Whaling
At the Edge of the World (2009)
Dan Stone’s “At the Edge of the World” is one of those rare documentaries that could easily function as a compelling fiction thriller. It’s a pirate story masquerading as a message movie, the tale of a band of environmental activist marauders who willingly surrender all material comforts and personal connections to spend months combating whaling ships in the southern seas. Superbly shot from a wealth of angles and perspectives and edited to emphasize the tension in their quest, it’s a grand entertainment that only offers time for reflection once the lights go up.
The filmmaker and his team accompany the crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on board its two vessels, the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter, as they journey to the Ross Sea to seek out and combat – with direct violent action if necessary – a Japanese whaling operation. Elements of a characters study emerge in the portraits of some of the individuals on board, and the movie occasionally evokes the controversy surrounding the organization’s tactics. But Mr. Stone never shows sustained interest in developing a political examination of Sea Shepherd or questioning its quasi-cult like qualities.
Instead, his film smartly centers on the existential details of the carrying out of the society's mission. As such, the picture pits man against man and nature in an economical fashion, and many scenes reverberate with suspense. No amount of verbal digressions or cinematic flourishes could possibly evoke the unbearable pall of a panicked search through the ocean fog for a motorboat containing missing crew, the anguish of weeks spent without encountering an “enemy” ship or the frenzied scrambling spurred by such a sighting, as the complex combat apparatus churns to life.
The Antarctic has been the subject of several high-profile recent documentaries, but never has it seemed quite so foreboding as when it appears as little more than a dark specter looming on the horizon, posing untold obstacles for the Sea Shepherd members. Be it the chunky icebergs, the freezing temperatures or the tumultuous conditions, the region lives up to its reputation as one fraught with dangers, where humans are not meant to venture. It amplifies the sense of Sea Shepherd’s story as one unfolding squarely within the grand adventure tradition of men and women directly confronting the natural world’s steepest challenges.
The cinematography, which has won several film festival awards, amplifies the onboard dramatics and the sense of the crew facing an almost insurmountable set of bigger obstacles. Sweeping helicopter shots frame the ships against the vast natural expanse; a bird’s eye view depicts multiple pockets of activity during the moment of contact with the Japanese; and intense close-up hand-held work communicates the claustrophobia and pressure that accompanies the Sea Shepherd life at sea. If there’s any regret that comes with taking in this impressively polished piece of work, it’s that the movie will likely never play on a big screen big enough to befit its scope. No matter; even at a small art house, or on your TV screen, “At the Edge of the World” is a wonder to behold.
AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Opened on Aug. 28 in Manhattan.
Produced and directed by Dan Stone; directors of photography, Daniel Fernandez, Tim Gorski, Simeon Houtman, James Joyner, Jonathan Kane, Mathieu Mauvernay and John Odebralski; edited by Patrick Gambuti Jr.; music by Jeff Gibbs, Gordy Haab and Tierro Lee; released by Wealth Effect Media. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is rated PG.