‘Entangled’ Trades Activism for Honesty

By Jacob Mulliken, age 16, Milton Academy, Milton, Mass.

An adult whale lies motionless on a Maine beach as an excavator heaves its battered carcass from the water. Volunteers and scientists mill about, looking on at the crude scene unfolding before them. It’s this sort of raw detail that characterizes filmmaker David Abel’s new documentary “Entangled” (2020), which chronicles the political, economic and social consequences of the fight to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.

Abel’s film focuses primarily on the leading cause of death for right whales: entanglements with fishing and lobster lines. Scattered throughout the film are images of these gruesome injuries, which occur when ropes connecting buoys to lobster traps ensnare whales and cut deep into their flesh. Throughout the film, Abel provides historical footage showing right whales being dismembered for their blubber; these pictures are often difficult to look at.

But just as we’re made to feel for the whales and their predicament, we’re also made to feel for the humans whose lives are intertwined with the mammal’s survival. The film follows a wide cast of characters, counting lobstermen, environmentalists, policymakers and scientists among its ensemble. While most of them remain fairly neutral and grounded in their interviews, the controversy of Abel’s subject is underscored by the moments in which they break this mold: an activist yells profanities at an official, a marine biologist breaks down into tears, and a Maine politician riles up crowds with angry rhetoric.

Still, the inclusion of these outbursts never feels overdone, and, for the most part, serves as a counterbalance to any complacency on the viewer’s part. By underscoring the emotional tension the issue holds for its stakeholders, we are forced to become invested in their plight. Particularly gratifying are the interviews with one Cape Cod lobsterman, who comes across as the most even-keeled of all the talking heads. He cares about the future of his profession, threatened by seasonal bans on lobstering, but also about preventing the right whale’s extinction.

Though never heavy-handed, the documentary sometimes overwhelms with detail. Scenes from policy meetings dabble in the inaccessible, occasionally dealing in minutiae too specific for the average viewer to grasp. Still, these brief moments of confusion stand vastly overshadowed by the rest of the film’s narrative brilliance, its individual stories woven together into a tapestry of tragedy. The film’s grace in dealing with such controversial subjects is unsurprising, considering Abel’s prior work covering active wars in the Balkans and violence in Latin America. Most remarkable of all is the film’s unwavering commitment to fairness, a feature often lacking in environmental documentaries. The project ultimately eschews activism — a term Abel himself rejects for his work — in favor of honesty, leaving us more uncomfortable than before.