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‘Minamata’ Film Review: Johnny Depp Photographs Environmental Disaster in Urgent Biopic

This true story fits firmly in the ”Erin Brockovich“ mold, but it celebrates the power of photojournalism

The greatest power of the photographic image is its function in affecting social change, a phenomenon that only persists and grows with the proliferation of cameras in every hand at all times. But with great power comes great responsibility, they say, a conundrum explored in Andrew Levitas’ “Minamata,” the story of legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and his experiences photographing the effect of toxic mercury poisoning in Japan.

Writers Levitas, David Kessler, Stephen Deuters and Jason Forman fudge the facts just a bit to craft this biopic of Smith, played here by a grizzled Johnny Depp, and the result is something akin to “Erin Brockovich” by way of “A Private War,” with a dash of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” for flavor. (Depp’s Smith has the same fondness for accessories and methamphetamine that his Hunter S. Thompson did.)

We pick up with Smith in 1971; he’s feuding with Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), his editor at LIFE Magazine, reckoning with his legacy as a brilliant photojournalist who pioneered the “photo essay,” and also haunted by memories of his time in the Pacific during World War II. When a Fuji film team shows up on his doorstep to shoot an ad, his interest in the comely translator, Aileen (Minami, “Battle Royale”) is strictly prurient.

However, they both have ulterior motives — Aileen wants him to come to Japan to document the deleterious effects of mercury pollution on the population of Minamata, who suffer from a mysterious neurological disease because of the toxic waste dumped by the Chisso chemical plant. Though Smith initially refuses, his strong sense of justice and his journalist’s eye for a compelling story can’t keep him away.

“Minamata” plays out like one would expect from a true story like this, in the narrative style of “Brockovich” or “Dark Waters”: A vulnerable population is harmed by corporate malfeasance; a crusading activist such as a lawyer or journalist takes up their cause and exposes the wrongdoing with the hopes of finding justice for the victims, or at least an end to their persecution.

This movie doesn’t break the mold, but at its center, its unlikely hero is an often-drunk photographer who needs more convincing than not to follow through on this mission. Smith is possessed of a gruff charm and a real affection for the people he encounters, as well as an empathy for the suffering he sees around him.

A young Japanese boy suffering from Minamata disease becomes the character who warms us to Smith; stuck on the outside looking in at other kids as they play soccer, he’s handed a camera by Smith, who tells him to “play the music, kid.” It empowers the boy to be a part of the world by observing it, but as he snaps away, Smith mutters, “I don’t know if I can hear it anymore.”

Smith’s great power is his empathy in capturing images of war, pain, and love that tell a story, but with every photo he takes, he gives part of himself to that relationship between subject and object, that process of creation. When we meet him, he’s given so much of himself away that he’s a husk.

While one could see Depp’s performance here as a continuation of the mad, creative Hunter S. Thompson–type for which he is so well-known, it’s his most tender, most mature work in years. Minami, as Smith’s future wife Aileen, has a powerful screen presence, but the two together don’t have a palpable chemistry, and they seem disjointed at times, like they’re not playing the same song. That disconnect does reflect Smith’s experience in Japan, fumbling into this situation without speaking the language. It’s only through the process of creating photographs that he connects with the people of Minamata, in their shared goal to achieve justice.

These moments of connection and the power of photography to tell a story shine through in “Minamata,” though there are also instances where the cinematic storytelling becomes a bit heavy-handed. As Smith croons a rough version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” while cradling the ailing Tomoko (Muneaki Kitsukawa) — the young daughter of his host family — the real song drops on the soundtrack, a moment of excessive underlining. Another moment, where Smith reflects on rejecting a bribe from a Chisso executive, is complicated by unnecessarily non-linear storytelling and some aggressive scoring from composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (“At Eternity’s Gate) crafts a naturalistic look with practical lighting and a fluid camera, rendering the film with a dark beauty, but Levitas also incorporates archival and recreated footage of the protests at Chisso, as well as capturing the photographic process with slow, almost completely still black-and-white sequences. Levitas has a lot of ideas about how to express this story cinematically, and he throws many at the screen, so many it starts to feel a bit too busy; as with Smith’s stark images, less could have been more powerful.

As a film, “Minamata” is more than just a biopic, reflecting the important social impact of photography, although — as a slideshow of images from pollution disasters, oil spills, toxic waste poisoning and more are shown over the credits — one has to wonder what true change has been made. Smith and his fellow photojournalists endanger themselves to help us see the horrors around us, exposing evil to light and freezing its effects in time. But is that enough? True justice comes only when knowledge meets action, when the rubber meets the road.

“Minamata” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.