When it comes to investigatory documentaries, there is always a risk of failure. The filmmakers may not find the secret they hoped, or the explanation for some strange phenomenon might be much more banal than they had anticipated. That’s exactly the problem facing Joshua Zeman, director and producer of The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52. Along with a team of scientists, he hoped for a particular result, only to come up short. Zeman then faced a choice: should he abandon the project altogether, or try and scrap a narrative out of what’s left? His answer is the latter—otherwise we wouldn’t be here—and the results are a scrappy hodgepodge of digressions that never quite add up to something thoughtful or proactive.
The whale in question has been swimming along for over 30 years. During the Cold War, researchers discovered a sea creature who sings at 52 hertz, a note so low that other whales will not respond to it. Many films and songs have pondered this whale, nicknamed “52,” but Zeman’s entry point is a 2004 New York Times article. Zeman narrates the film and is a character within it, often appearing in front of the camera. He ponders the whale’s meaning in voiceover and in interviews with scientists, musicians, and enthusiasts who are similarly obsessed. This is all an overture for an expedition along the California coast line, one where Zeman somehow convinces himself that he will find a whale that has been lost for year. He doesn’t.
The trouble with The Loneliest Whale is its narrow scope. Through the film, Zeman asks pointed questions of his subjects, as opposed to general ones, which forces the film into his narrow band of curiosity. His only interest is, narrowly, this particular animal, and generally, the concept of loneliness. There are some attempts to discuss the issue of whaling and how globalism affects whale communication, except these scenes are all half-hearted attempts to pad out the runtime. Apparently none of the talking heads thought to warn Zeman about the small likelihood of success, push toward their more innovative research, or remind him that there are other large ocean mammals in the sea. What we have instead is an investigator, and a film, with limited, rigid boundaries of curiosity and imagination.
At one point, Zeman interviews a musician who attempts to perform music with whales, a sort of inter-species duet. The scene is intriguing, except for the lack of follow-up. How did the musician get into this project? How successful are his “duets?” There are no answers, to the point where the viewer might wonder whether the whole scene was staged. No scientist has an opportunity to explain their experiments thoroughly, or the equipment they use, because Zeman would rather interview a folk/pop songwriter who wrote about “52” once.
But nature documentaries do not have to be like The Loneliest Whale. At this year’s AFI Docs, for example, the documentary Fathom thoughtfully followed two whale researchers and their attempts to understand whale songs. That documentary is pensive and aesthetically beautiful, depicting the Alaskan wilderness and the South Pacific, until the film feels like an introspective adventure. The Loneliest Whale pales in comparison—among other things, it has marked disinterest acting like a travelogue—and serves as proof of what is lost when the filmmaker trusts his own instincts more than his experts. By the time Zeman tries to wrap it all together, his voiceover is just a rehash of what has occurred to countless scientists, authors, and anyone who tried to make sense of this solitary marine creature. At best, he misunderstands the audience’s curiosity. At worst, he borderline insults us.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is in theaters on July 9, then available on VOD platforms on July 16.