American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Mike Nichols’ “The Day of the Dolphin” trips on its own stylishness and tries so hard not to be a conventional science-fiction thriller that it fails, alas, to be anything.
The same material might have been more interesting in the hands of a less ambitious director, who could have gone for suspense, action and laughs. Instead, Nichols gives us a vast gray moral middle ground, on which the various U.S. intelligence agencies vaguely clash. The original novel by Robert Merle, a left-radical Frenchman, was more exciting than this. He gave us a secret task force that had succeeded in communicating with dolphins, and then there was lots of intrigue as attempts were made to kidnap (dolphinap?) the prize specimens. They were to be used as undetectable carriers of underwater mines, as highly intelligent swimming H-bombs and as the agents of assassination against people living on boats. At the end of the novel, if memory serves, a nuclear war is about to break out and the heroes are being towed toward Cuba by the prize dolphins.
This sounds like fairly silly material, but Merle got away with it by (a) communicating a great deal of accurate and interesting information about dolphins so that his plot even seemed plausible) (b) inventing a weary prose style in which the amoral activities of U.S. spies seemed to personify the Cold War, and (c) giving us lots of sexual intrigues and jealous office politics around the laboratory. He also went into his characters’ minds and made them more interesting, as people, then they needed to be as elements of the plot.
Nichols and his screenwriter, Buck Henry, apparently decided that a closing shot of George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere heading out to sea would be dangerously funny. So the movie stops far short of Merle’s fantasies.