Producers: Sam Sarkar, Kevan Van Thompson, Andrew Levitas and Johnny Depp   Director: Andrew Levitas   Screenplay: David K. Kessler, Andrew Levitas, Jason Forman and Stephen Deuters   Cast: Johnny Depp, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bill Nighy, Jun Kunimura, Minami, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano, Kogarashi Wakasugi and Akiko Iwase    Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: C+

“It’s happened before, and it will happen again,” a character says (in Japanese, to be sure, but subtitled) in the course of this fact-based drama.  He’s referring to the fact that in pursuit of profits corporations often lie about the dangers their factories pose to people living near them, but he might as well be talking about films like this, which focus on struggles to unmask such hazards.

From “Erin Brockovich” to “Dark Waters,” movies have lionized heroic individuals who put themselves at risk to publicize corporate skullduggery—in particular, the practice of dumping toxic chemicals into the rivers and streams around their plants without regard for the wellbeing of local residents.  Those films concerned events that occurred in the 1990s; this one deals with a case that happened more than twenty years earlier in Japan which revealed that a chemical plant had caused severe neurological disorders among residents of a nearby fishing village by spilling untreated wastewater containing mercury into the bay and contaminating the fish the locals caught and ate.

The tragic impact on the local population, especially children, had been recognized for more than a decade and had spawned a protest movement demanding changes and compensation for the victims, but it didn’t receive widespread international attention until Life Magazine, then on its last legs, included a photo essay on the affected village of Minamata in its June 2, 1972 issue.  This film, Andrew Levitas’ second writing-directing effort, is a dramatization of how that piece originated.

The photographer celebrated for the essay is W. Eugene Smith (Johnny Depp), a dissipated alcoholic whose best days are far behind him.  He’s approached by an activist delegation, including the lovely Aileen (Minami), to go to Japan and record the plight of Minamata’s residents, and persuades Life’s editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), with whom he has a stormy long-term relationship, to fund the trip.

Though stymied by the reluctance of most parents to have their children subjected to publicity—most notably the Matsumuras (Tadanobu Asano and Akiko Iwase), who welcome him graciously into their home but decline his request to photograph their incapacitated daughter Akiko (Kogarashi Wakasugi)—he shoots what he can, including the protests led by firebrand Mitsuo Yamazaki (Hiroyuki Sanada)  and footage taken surreptitiously in hospital wards which he and Aileen sneak into with activist Kiyoshi (Ryo Kase).  He becomes such a matter of concern to corporate executives that company president Nojima (Jun Kunimura) offers him a hefty bribe to leave.  When that fails, they resort to burning down the darkroom his allies have built for him, along with his photos.  And in a melee between protesters and company thugs, he’s violently assaulted.

But he gets the photos to Hayes, and when the essay is published, it brings promises of compensation and reform (though closing captions indicate that the promises have not been fulfilled).  The attention it brought to the reality of mercury poisoning, moreover, had global impact.   

What Cisso Chemical did, and failed to do, at Minamata was indeed horrifying, and Smith’s role in revealing it to the world was undoubtedly important.  Levitas and his crew (production designer Tom Foden and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme), shooting primarily in Serbia and Montenegro, demonstrate dedication to the task of telling the story, and Depp, along with the rest of the cast, invest in the effort with compelling performances, even if their commitment sometimes results in over-the-top theatrics.  (Depp gravitates between subtlety and overly broad moments, and Sanada’s stentorian delivery can be exhausting.)  The visual style Levitas has chosen, which emphasizes grim, dank textures and in-your-face chaos, is hardly appealing, but one can argue that it fits the material, as does Ryuichi Sakamoto’s stark score.

One can quibble with some changes the script makes to the record for dramatic effect.  In this telling, for example, Smith and Aileen are brought together by their work in Minamata; in reality the two were already living together when the deputation from Japan arrived in New York.  More importantly, the film falls into too many of the traps that such stories invite.  Although a good deal of footage is devoted to the protesters, it’s essentially cast as the tale of an outsider whose intervention is the key to the underdogs’ success.  And it definitely goes for the emotional jugular.  The stunningly moving photograph of Akiko being bathed by her mother is one thing, its iconic character being integral to the narrative.  But the emphasis on Smith’s befriending of a local boy with heavy braces on his legs, whom he educates in the art of photography, leans toward cloying manipulation.

Moreover, Depp’s tendency to overdo leads to moments that come across as self-indulgent.  A telephone conversation Smith has with Hayes when he’s despondent over how things are going and, in his cups, threatens to abandon the assignment goes on way too long, apparently just to allow both Depp and Nighy (minimizing his usual tics) to shout at one another interminably.  It’s an instance in which editor Nathan Nugent might have used his tools to better advantage.  He might also have reduced the number of messy montages representing Smith’s haunted recollections of his experiences as a reporter during World War II, which again give Depp an excuse to go overboard as a “wakes” from such terrible visions.  The long sequence in which Nojima gives Smith a tour of the factory, concluding with a rooftop offer of a bribe, is almost comically overdrawn; if Kunimura had a moustache, he would certainly be twirling it.  And the triumphant shots of the printing presses rolling off the issue of Life in which Smith’s photo essay appears are so old-fashioned that you might have to stifle a chuckle at the cliché.

“Minamata” tells a story of corporate callousness that, despite its familiarity, can’t help but carry an impact; but flaws in the telling diminish its inherent power.