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It’s no exaggeration to say that “The Cove” could do for Japan’s slaughter of dolphins what Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” did for the meat-packing industry or Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” did for polluters. Whether you’re a fervent PETA activist or someone who still likes eating veal, you’ll find yourself shaken by the revelations of this powerful new documentary.

“The Cove” introduces us to Richard O’Barry, the man who once taught the several dolphins who starred on TV’s “Flipper” to do various tricks. That show essentially spawned Sea World and countless other aquariums around the world where dolphins perform stunts and interact with human beings, and O’Barry is now spending the rest of his life trying to make it up to our cetacean friends.

Dolphins, as it turns out, swim some 40 miles a day in the open sea. They have a very sophisticated sense of sonar, in which their undersea cries allow them to understand their surroundings. Not surprisingly, they hate being stuck in small tanks — most dolphin shows keep large quantities of Maalox and Mylanta on hand, we are told, because the intelligent, finned creatures suffer from stress-related ulcers in captivity. (The dolphins’ permanent smile hides their true feelings.)

Faring far worse are the dolphins that are slaughtered by the hundreds each day between September and March off the coast of Japan; they’re lured into a cove, and those that aren’t sold off to trainers are butchered.

There’s a case to be made, of course, about killing animals for food, but the film tells us that dolphin meat is so saturated with mercury — 22,000 parts per million, when the legal limit in Japan is 0.4 parts per million — that it’s too poisonous for human consumption. And yet, Japan defends its right to kill dolphins, even buying off impoverished nations to vote alongside Japan in international conferences that manage the capture of whales and other cetaceans. (It’s worth noting that most Japanese citizens have no idea that this slaughter is even taking place; city dwellers far from the coast are shown reacting with horror when shown the filmmakers’ footage.)

What makes “The Cove” so powerful is that it’s not just an ecological horror show — it’s a real-life thriller that’s as suspenseful as anything cooked up by Hollywood. The perpetrators of the dolphin capture do everything possible to keep onlookers away, so director Louis Psihoyos and his team are forced to go rogue, submerging underwater microphones in the middle of the night, hiding hi-def cameras inside fake rocks created by Industrial Light and Magic, and risking their lives to show the world what’s happening in this isolated cove.

The result is some of the most exciting filmmaking you’ll see this year — “The Cove” could very well change not only the face of nature documentaries but also laws, policy and attitudes toward the life and death of dolphins.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .