Minamata – Film Review (sort of)


Minamata, starring Johnny Depp as photojournalist W. Eugene Smith

It’s so rare that feature film biopics of great photographers are ever made, we thought a review of the latest one was in order. That the photographer – W. Eugene Smith – is one of the all-time greats is not in question. Neither is the fact that he was a troubled and difficult character to manage, be it for editors, friends, wives, kids or anyone else!

But that does not mean he was a bad guy. Not at all. He was a good guy who often behaved badly. The booze and pills that followed his severe WWII shrapnel injuries suffered while covering Okinawa, not to mention surviving two plane crashes, took their toll on body and psyche alike. That said, there was nobody more dedicated to his craft and his causes and gave more unrelenting effort in documenting them than Gene Smith.

Some film reviewers of Minamata insist Smith’s behavior got in the way of the story. I say to them, the man “getting in the way of the story”, IS the story! Based on HIS book, based on three and half years living in Minamata. It’s a biopic story for god’s sake, not a documentary on the Minamata tragedy.

Other critics say director Andrew Levitas, while making a compelling film overall, got too heavy handed with the ‘message’. In other words, the message got in the way of the storytelling. It’s always more impactful when the characters embody the message through story, rather than having a director noticeably impose it. I disagree with this point as well. I watched it a second time just to check, and I have no idea what these critics are talking about. Any heavy-handed messaging was placed where heavy handed messaging is supposed to be placed, in text at the end of the film. And even those were not heavy handed. Call me a daft, thick-headed dolt if you wish, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time!

While “Minamata” was made well before Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard aired their dirty sheets to the world, Depp was always the perfect imperfect choice to play Smith. A turbulent and drug abusing personal life certainly helped, as well as his penchant for playing the very odd duck. Other biopic roles he played include Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, bizarro B-Filmmaker Ed Wood, gangster psychopaths Whitey Bulger and John Dillinger, undercover narc Donnie Brasco, and drug smuggler George Jung, in Blow. And probably one or two more I can’t think of. Or be bothered to ask Google about. Oh yeah, Jack Sparrow. He was a real person, right? And that dude with the octopus head? I was riveted.

The trials and tribulations Smith encountered while producing his last great act of photojournalism, were against all odds. Well, not all the odds of course, but a stack of them high enough and nasty enough to send all but the orneriest bullheads among us running home to our mommies to hide from our editors. To Smith however, with all his war photographer experience, nothing about Minamata in peacetime, or the evil-ass Chisso Corporation, was going to prevent him from telling this very human tragedy. Evil-ass Chisso Corporation (as they are now formally known) caused Minamata disease by dumping huge amounts of mercury into the local waters, and continued to do so long after they knew they were maiming, killing and causing serious birth defects.

In the film, as in real life, Smith’s struggles with the culture, closed doors and scorn on a daily basis were expected obstacles. Being severely beaten by corporate goons attempting to scare him off the story, not so much. But he did not let it deter him. In fact it spurned him on even more, despite the permanent eye and nerve damage, temporary blindness, and blackouts when he raised his right arm. (Depp experienced blackouts as well, but only after raising his whisky arm for hours on end). The pain was so intense at times, Smith once begged his wife to drive an axe through his forehead to “take his mind of it”. Through it all Smith forged on, even when he was unable to snap a photo with his broken index finger as he had done a million times. To take a picture, he used a cable release that he could only pull with his mouth! Not sure if this is true. In the film he manages to use his thumb. (But if true, or even possibly true, it is one of the few examples of a Hollywood biopic choosing mundane fact over more colorful legend).

I suppose I have pre-ambled more than enough here and should finally get to actually reviewing the film! But not today. I have a Zoom call with Johnny in five minutes.

To be continued… But go ahead and see Minamata, then come back for the conclusion of this review and tell me what a brilliant daft dolt I was. It wouldn’t be the first time!

Here’s the Minamata trailer: https://youtu.be/WP3pKTssw_E

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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