Paul Watson is a different sort of environmentalist than is typical in documentaries. In “Watson,” the director Lesley Chilcott’s profile of the maritime activist, he makes the case for direct confrontation on the high seas. If that meant ramming a boat he believed was engaged in poaching, then by god, that boat was getting rammed.
A founding member of Greenpeace who left the organization on contentious terms, Watson started the conservation group Sea Shepherd in 1977. A professed “eco-vigilante” group that makes a mission of protecting aquatic wildlife around the globe, Sea Shepherd seeks out illegal fishing and stops ships that engage in it before they can act.
The group has had widely publicized skirmishes with, among others, Japanese whaling vessels and with fishermen in Guatemalan waters whom Sea Shepherd has contended were slicing the fins off sharks. (“They claimed that I rammed them and tried to kill them,” Watson says of the latter. “I mean, if my decision was to ram them and try to kill them, they would be dead.”)
We see snippets of those confrontations in the movie, because Watson, crediting the media theorist Marshall McLuhan as an inspiration, has long had cameras aboard Sea Shepherd’s vessels. (He has also been a presence on Animal Planet, the channel that is distributing the film.) This choice has left Chilcott with a wealth of white-knuckle footage that helps to keep the documentary visually dynamic.
Watson’s vigilantism hasn’t gone unchecked: At the end, the film notes that he is still subject to an Interpol “red notice” — essentially an international “wanted” poster — requested by the Japanese authorities. But even for those skeptical of Watson’s tactics, he is engaging when describing his environmental concerns, such as how short-term sales create an incentive for fish sellers to push certain species to extinction. The movie can be frustratingly deferential toward Watson, but it is never less than urgent.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.
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