A lot of things helped make this past Oscars ceremony an infamous affair—the most innocuous being the addition of two online popularity contests seemingly devoid of any real checks and balances to prevent them from becoming a ballot-stuffing battle royale between fandoms. The Zack Snyder contingent (unsurprisingly) proved victorious with both, but there was an intriguing dark horse by way of the Johnny Depp-starring and -produced Minamata. Was it genuine? Who knows? Its third-place finish could have been as much about Depp stans seeking redemption for their beloved yet problematic celebrity post-Grindelwald firing as trolls looking to force the Academy into putting his name back onto their lips despite the film having an almost non-existent release. Either way, it’s become a circus attraction.

Director Andrew Levitas’ biopic (adapted alongside David Kessler, Stephen Deuters, and Jason Forman from Aileen Mioko Smith and W. Eugene Smith’s autobiographical book) had its festival premiere at Berlinale 2020 just as COVID was ramping up to shut down the world. From there came theatrical delays, controversy, and an eventual limited engagement that made it under the wire for Oscar qualification. It became “that Johnny Depp movie” no one wanted to touch rather than the latest example of a cinematic memorial to environmental activism. But, in many ways this could make a nice companion piece to Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, speaking for deep-pocketed corporate Goliath cover-ups versus unassuming Davids struggling to expose the necessary truths to help the public make their own conclusions.

It’s also a fitting role for Depp’s talents. Think a washed-up Jack Sparrow who officially blew through his stock of rum en route to destroying every real relationship he ever had and currently hopes suicide by self-loathing is possible (he’s too lazy to actually kill himself). That’s where we meet his version of Gene Smith, selling off his photography equipment, barging into Life magazine editor Robert Hayes’ (Bill Nighy) office to fight and ostensibly say goodbye, and recording an informal last will and testament to his kids before a knock at the door jolts him to his feet. He’d forgotten he agreed to be a Japanese film manufacturer’s spokesman. Their determined liaison (Minami’s Aileen) hopes he didn’t forget how to inspire the world through his art.

The year is 1971 and word surrounding the so-called “Minamata disease” is barely being whispered despite the Chisso factory in Minamata’s fishing town continuing to poison its waters with mercury. Aileen hopes to persuade Gene into traveling back to Japan (he has PTSD flashes of his previous journey there 25 years ago during World War II, the imagery of which is all the film provides on the subject) so his work can inspire the world to demand accountability. She couldn’t have known that she would find him washed-up, broke, and without the motivation to do anything but get drunk. Maybe it’s the promise of money to leave his children or the chance for a final chapter to his legacy, but he eventually relents—with Hayes’ financial support, of course.

What follows is at times a tense affair, thanks to Chisso president Nojima’s (Jun Kunimura) ruthless tactics to keep things under wraps. The company rules with fear—not only via the threat of retribution, but also the prospect of shutting down the factory and leaving the population with nowhere to work (it supplies the majority of the town’s jobs). So while families hope for financial restitution, they don’t want to rock the boat. That means they don’t want Smith to photograph them and put them in the crossfire. Aileen does her best to mitigate his frustration and guide him to work with the ample material he does have at his disposal, but Gene is erratic to the point of giving his only camera away before even visiting the hospital.

Levitas and company weave together the parallel battles occurring in his viewfinder well with protests (led by Hiroyuki Sanada’s Mitsuo Yamazaki), desperate parents (Akiko Iwase’s Masako Matsumura, the fictionalized version of the mother in Tomoko and Mother in the Bath), and the sort of sabotage / bribery that would make a convicted journalist quit—let alone one as prone to being compromised in his current state as Gene. I found myself easily investing in what unfolds as the stakes grew higher (a foreigner being on-site means Nojima can no longer pretend the cover-up will stay internal) and Smith was pushed to his limits so integrity can take over. The whole can be overly melodramatic at times, but the subject matter is one where avoiding that is difficult.

We’re talking about a town of people suffering tremors if exposed later in life, deformities if exposed in the womb. At one point Smith talks about needing to shoot the eyes of the victims so that his audience can better empathize, but this is not a case where that’s true; their plight and physical duress can’t help but conjure it. Aileen becomes the perfect companion as a result, telling him that he’s the one who must show empathy for subjects willing to let him photograph them and use their bodies as his editorial photo essay’s “words” at all. It’s a dynamic that builds through trust and compassion rather than lust—a crucial detail in light of their age difference and the circumstances. They never overshadow Minamata itself.

And that, in turn, is why the external noise surrounding Depp and that Oscar sideshow is so unfortunate. It all distracts from a story that deserves to be told on its own merits and a film that effectively does exactly that. Minamata isn’t without its flaws, but a solid tale of art as power and citizens as heroes emerges. Nighy, Kunimura, and Sanada lend commanding performances in small roles, the many supporting players afflicted with Minamata disease provide an authenticity and humanity that takes the proceedings to another level, and Minami and Depp shine at the top with their courage and comedic flair respectively. Whether or not you believe Depp should still be working, he still has the capability to lose himself in a part. We’ll see what’s next.

Minamata hits VOD/Digital HD on April 8.

Grade: B

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