It’s easy to pick apart The Day of the Dolphin, not just because it’s an awkward hybrid of loopy ideas and straight drama, but also because it was such a bizarre career choice for screenwriter Buck Henry and director Mike Nichols, who previously collaborated on the social satire The Graduate (1967) and the surrealistic war movie Catch-22 (1970). Yet even though The Day of the Dolphin doesn’t bear obvious fingerprints from either Henry or Nichols, it subtly reflects both artists’ focus on meticulous character development and thought-provoking concepts. As to the larger question of whether the movie actually works, that’s entirely a matter of taste. Undoubtedly, many viewers will find the central premise too incredible (or even silly). As for me, I find the picture consistently interesting even when believability wavers.
The plot revolves around Dr. Jake Terrell (George C. Scott), who operates a privately funded marine laboratory where he studies the communication behaviors of dolphins. Or at least that’s what he tells the public. In secret (known only to his staff), Terrell has trained two dolphins, Alpha and Beta, to speak and understand a handful of English words. Predictably, problems arise when Terrell shares this information with his chief benefactor, Harold DeMilo (Fritz Weaver). Shadowy forces learn about the dolphins and kidnap the animals for an evil purpose—the bad guys want to train the dolphins to assassinate the U.S. president by delivering underwater bombs to his yacht while the president is on vacation. (As noted earlier, the premise borders on silliness.)
What makes The Day of the Dolphin watchable is how straight the material is played. During the movie’s most evocative scenes, Terrell bonds with Alpha and Beta through underwater play that’s scored to elegant music by composer Georges Delerue; for viewers willing to take the movie’s ride, it’s easy to develop a real emotional bond with the animals, and to sympathize with Terrell’s desire to protect them. In that context, the assassination conspiracy isn’t the driving force of the story so much as a complication that tests an unusual relationship.
Obviously, having an actor of Scott’s power in the leading role makes all the difference. His gruff quality steers the animal scenes clear of Disney-esque sweetness, so when the movie finally goes for viewers’ heartstrings, the bittersweet crescendos of the story feel as earned as they possibly could. There’s not a lot of room for other characters to emerge as individuals, but Nichols stocks the movie with skilled actors who lend nuance where they can. Edward Herrmann and Paul Sorvino stand out as, respectively, one of Terrell’s aides and a mystery man who infiltrates Terrell’s laboratory. A key behind-the-scenes player worth mentioning is cinematographer William A. Fraker, who captures the beating sun and lapping waves of the film’s oceanside locations with crisp realism while also creating a magical world underwater.
The Day of the Dolphin: GROOVY