Andrew Levitas’ searing drama details the campaigning work of pioneering US photographer Eugene Smith in exposing catastrophic corporate negligence.
Eugene Smith (an almost unrecognisable Johnny Depp) was one of the outstanding photojournalists of the Second World War and acclaimed for his photo-essay work with Life magazine. By the end of the 1960s, he was living a scant existence in a New York loft apartment, haunted by the horrors he had witnessed and addicted to drugs and alcohol. But a chance commission found him travelling to Japan to investigate and record the activities of the Chisso Corporation. Their releasing industrial waste into the bay surrounding the city of Minamata saw its population succumb to terrible diseases brought on by poisoning. What Smith’s reporting reveals is the scale of the chemical dumping, its impact and the coercion employed by big business, local government and law enforcement in covering up what had happened.
Levitas’ film was mostly shot in Serbia, which doubles up impressively as Japan. Unlike Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, which employed a glacial approach to the role of US conglomerate DuPont in a West Virginia pollution case, Minamata throws us into the action as if we are witnessing what is taking place as Smith records it. Depp impresses as the photographer, ably capturing his destructive tendencies, but giving us a sense of Smith’s brilliance as he throws himself deeper into the lives of the Japanese community.