“Minamata” is a mix-and-match of a few different things. The story of celebrated “Life” photojournalist W. Eugene Smith as he documented the effects of toxic mercury poisoning in Japan is part, biopic and part exposé of corporate malfeasance with just a hint of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” thrown in for color.
The story begins in 1971 in New York. Smith (Johnny Depp) is at the tail end of a legendary career. His reclusive and erratic behavior has eroded his relationship with “Life” editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) and the years as a World War II photographer haunt his memory.
Aileen (Minami), a translator for Fuji film advertisement, suggests he go to Japan to witness and document the effects of mercury pollution in the city of Minamata. For a decade and a half, the locals have suffered a neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning, the result of toxic waste dumped into Minamata Bay by the Chisso chemical plant. Aileen wants the eyes of the world to focus on the problem.
The gruff Smith is initially reluctant, but his growing fondness for Aileen, an assignment from “Life” and his own sense of journalistic integrity change his mind. The resulting trip and story transforms both Smith and the perception of the situation in Minamata.
The long delayed “Minamata”—it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020—is an uneven film anchored by a rock-solid performance by Johnny Depp. He humanizes the curt Smith, milking out a redemption arc for the character as he atones for past transgressions by applying his craft to make the world a better place for the people of Minamata. His torment is made clear in a speech about the old belief that a photograph steals the soul of its subject. “What gets left out of the fine print,” he says, “is that it can also take a piece of the photographer’s soul.”
It is mature work, without a trace of Capt. Jack. A flash of Hunter S. Thompson peaks through in Smith’s abuse of methamphetamine, alcohol and general disregard for the niceties of being respectful to one’s editor, but overall, Depp digs deep and brings a rough-hewn mix of charm and compassion.
Depp shines in a movie that travels a well-worn path. Stories of activism vs. corporate malfeasance tend to follow a similar trajectory, and “Minamata” is no different. It hits familiar beats of corporate callousness but offers something new in the stunning recreations of Smith’s photos, specifically “Tomoko in her Bath,” the most famous picture from the portfolio.
“Minamata” takes liberties with historical timelines, but this isn’t a documentary, it is a dramatic recreation of Smith’s call to arms, and as such, delivers a compelling, if familiar, story.