‘The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52’: Film Review

With Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier on board as executive producers, Joshua Zeman’s seafaring doc revolves around an expedition to locate an elusive and perhaps one-of-a-kind whale.

For a creature who nobody’s seen — no human, anyway — the whale known as 52 has quite a following. In an unexpected bonus of Cold War counterintelligence, its vocalizations, at a unique-to-whales frequency of 52 hertz, were discovered through naval sonar in 1989. Subsequently these sounds were tracked for a dozen years by William Watkins, a specialist in marine mammal bioacoustics. That 52’s calls through the oceans seemingly went unanswered suggested that it was the only one of its kind, and this lonesome-cetacean story was the subject of a 2004 New York Times article that turned it into a cultural sensation.

What could be more achingly poetic than the idea of a mateless beast traveling the world’s seas, unable to even communicate with another whale? One of the many people captivated by this marine mystery was documentarian Joshua Zeman (The Sons of Sam, Cropsey), who turned his curiosity into action. The Loneliest Whale finds him and an ace team of scientists embarking on a mission to find 52. As at least one expert notes, searching for a needle in a haystack would be a vast improvement on their odds of success.

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

The Bottom Line

Its heart is true, but its course is unsteady.

Release date: Friday, July 9

Director: Joshua Zeman

Screenwriters: Joshua Zeman, Lisa Schiller

Rated PG,
1 hour 37 minutes

The Navy refuses to participate in the search or release its classified files relating to underwater sound surveillance, but Zeman presses on, and, after four years of planning, he and a few determined experts set off into the blue Pacific on a small vessel that’s called Truth and loaded with state-of-the-art tech. With enough crowdsourced funds for only a seven-day expedition, the mission is fueled as much by hope as by anything.

The enthusiasm and unflappability of the crew are engaging, even when the film feels a bit at sea. The group is led by bioacoustics specialist John Hildebrand, a distinguished professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of UC San Diego, and Olympia, Washington-based research biologist John Calambokidis, who years earlier encountered a hybrid of the blue whale and the fin whale that might be a clue to 52’s biological profile.

They set out not even knowing if their Moby-Dick is still alive. Other essential questions arise as the doc proceeds: If 52, whose song occupies a higher sound range than the vocalizations of most whales, is indeed alone in the deep, is it lonely? Or are its fans, with their postings and artwork and songs, projecting their own digital-age anxieties, or maybe identifying with the notion of being unique and misunderstood?

Actor Kate Micucci appears to sing her ode to 52 and comment on the emotional resonance of the story. As sincere and charming as she is, this sequence is emblematic of the way the film increasingly feels like a loosely tied collection of discrete sections; their relevance is clear, but there’s no flow to this watery tale. The effect is a well-rounded overview. Zeman and co-writer Lisa Schiller provide background info on the whaling industry, and the ongoing effects of the world’s busy shipping lanes on the whale population — besides colliding with the mammals, the ships create so much noise that they prevent them from communicating across the underwater miles, creating what one observers calls “a whole ocean of lonely whales.”

This information is crucial to a general understanding of whales’ predicament in the world we’ve created, but it’s hardly groundbreaking, and presented in a very basic way. Less boilerplate, and in tune with the sonic theme, is a section on the impact of environmentalist Roger Payne’s unlikely 1970 hit album, Songs of the Humpback Whale. With the cetaceans facing extinction in the ’60s, this collection of their arias was a game-changer in terms of the rise of awareness and the Save the Whales movement. In the present day, musician-philosopher David Rothenberg goes beyond merely listening: He “jams” with the sea’s denizens, cheerfully playing a clarinet when he’s on the water.

There’s a bright buoyancy, too, to the scientists assembled for Zeman’s project — their delight in every discovery or heartening sign, their even-keeled responses to setbacks. If The Loneliest Whale feels like it’s drifting toward anticlimax, the film’s epilogue caps the action with a rapturous surprise. The preceding journey might have been smoother, but the doc is a reminder that we still know so little about the oceans and their inhabitants, and an illustration of how much hope we attach to them.

Full credits

Distributor: Bleecker Street
Production companies: Gigantic Pictures, Reckless Productions, ShowKat Productions, in association with Appian Way, Lost Lane Entertainment, Skyline Entertainment, Electric Panda Entertainment
Director: Joshua Zeman
Screenwriters: Joshua Zeman, Lisa Schiller
Producers: Joshua Zeman, Jonathan Shukat
Executive producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson, Lucy Sumner, Adrian Grenier, Jim Jacobsen, Maria Bertrand, Gabriel Napora, Yas Taalat, Yipeng Ben Lu, Jeffrey Sobrato, Nicole Shipley, Jeff Rice, Brian Devine, Evan Krauss
Directors of photography: Alan Jacobsen, Nelson Hume
Editors: J.D. Marlow, Aaron Crozier
Composers: Alex Lasarenko, David Little

Rated PG, 1 hour 37 minutes