2022, R, 115 min. Directed by Andrew Levitas. Starring Johnny Depp, Minami, Bill Nighy, Ryō Kase, Akiko Iwase, Jun Kunimura.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 11, 2022
Do you know why the rich and powerful hate the press? Because sometimes that’s the only way to hold them accountable, even if only a little bit.
In its dour and often depressing depiction of environmental struggle, 1970s-set true-life pollution drama Minimata would pair well with Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters. Both are as much a call to arms as they are a historical document, and they have have oddly similar openings, as an unlikely activist convinces a burnt-out professional to come bear witness. In Haynes’ film, it was a West Virginia farmer walking into a high-priced lawyer’s office. Here, it’s Aileen Mioko (Minami) who prods ailing war photographer W. Eugene Smith (Depp) to travel to Japan, to the city of Minamata where thousands of people have been poisoned by methylmercury dumped into the water by a chemical plant owned by the Chisso Corporation. The neurological and developmental toll inflicted was so common in the fishing community that it became known as Minamata disease, leaving adults with multiple-sclerosis-like symptoms and children with debilitating genetic disorders.
Although the script fudges some of the details (most especially the chronology of Gene and Aileen’s relationship), it captures that what the people of Minamata wanted from Smith was not proof that Chisso had knowingly poisoned them for decades: It was to back the company into a corner on the world stage. What better way to do that than get the world-famous Smith to take photos for Life magazine? Well, there are probably lots considering that by 1971 Smith looked decades older than his 53 years and felt even older, and his plummet is spelled out by Bill Nighy as editor Robert Hayes (a proxy for Life Editor Thomas Griffith), who is watching the publication he loves crumble into obsolescence.
At Minamata’s core is a rare return to form for Depp. Buried under the same kind of dense makeup job that almost drowned him in Black Mass (here it veers wildly between amateur theatre and eerily perfect), he keeps the idiosyncratic Smith at a strange reserve, very much the observer. The resulting Minamata photo essay, “Death Flow From a Pipe,” was a last hurrah for both Smith and Life (even though it got pushed off the front cover by Raquel Welch), and its impact was questionable. But co-writer/director Andrew Levitas never lets nihilism obscure the fact that it was necessary.
The culmination of Minamata is in the taking of one picture: “Tomoko in her Bath,” a modern pietà overflowing with a mother’s love for her child, stricken by toxins in the womb. It’s a harrowing, necessary photograph, the centerpiece of Smith’s coverage and a landmark in photojournalism, and the moment of its capture is captured with loving grace. There is a sense of awe: not of the photographer’s work, but instead that mood is conveyed by Smith himself. Depp shines through the sometimes erratic old-man makeup in this moment, giving an insight into what Smith was achieving, why he would subject himself to risk and self-destruction the way that he did. This is the photographer as blessed observer – a key component in how Minamata avoids any clumsy white savior narratives while also dodging the idea that Smith was somehow redeemed by taking a few photos. The longer story here, as laid out in a pre-credits epilogue, shows the limits of justice. As for Smith, he definitely isn’t the simple hero here. But he undoubtedly did something heroic.