The Amazon is, not to state the obvious, a mammoth subject for a documentary, presenting a seemingly infinite number of possibilities to approach imparting information while offering sumptuous visuals. The good news, this Academy Award nominated feature is aces in the visuals department. The bad news, the focal point chosen by filmmaker Kieth (yes, he spells his name that way) Merrill is downright ridiculous, with an actor portraying a medicine man descendant of the Incas ultimately meeting up with a real-life American doctor and researcher, Greg Plotkin. My jaw was agape throughout much of this meandering enterprise, again for both good and bad reasons--the scenery was ceaselessly spectacular, while the "dramatic" framing (and I use the term extremely loosely) was simply unbelievably bad and ham-handed.
Amazon starts out well with a cheesy clip from some old black and white film showing an intrepid "white hunter" escaping marauding cannibals, only to be beset by marauding crocodiles. It's funny and perfectly sets up Linda Hunt's nice narration about misconceptions surrounding our South American watery neighbor. Unfortunately that then gets us to the descendants of the Incas. You know something is amiss when the soundtrack Andean flutes and drums don't match anything remotely being played by the on screen performers (keep an eye on the drummers). There's something artificial going on almost right off the bat, and it's what ultimately keeps this sometimes riveting piece from being truly exemplary.
That then introduces us to one of the two main characters (and isn't it strange using the word character for a supposed documentary), an Incan shaman who is out to find new cures for his people. He secures some ice melt from a high mountain top, which he hopes to trade in the "big city" for some other miracle cures. Working from the other end of this spectrum is Dr. Plotkin, a researcher who has looked into medicinal uses for such things as curare, the "poison dart" additive than can easily kill, but which, when used in moderation, has had a number of life saving medicines made from it.
As these two radically different people slowly work toward a momentary meeting, we do get one amazing vista after another. There are, of course, numerous shots of the raging river itself, but we also get a number of interesting sidebars showing various lifeforms that live in and around the river, things like tapirs and pink dolphins. This is where Amazon really comes alive and fulfills its potential. I really had to wonder why the inert dramatic framing device was used at all--the documentary would have been simply spectacular had it been a no frills added tour of the waterway and its ecosystem.
Probably not helping is the fact that neither Plotkin nor the Indian actor hired to portray the shaman have an real performing experience. What that results in is acting! (you should be picturing Jon Lovitz saying that), a hyperbolic style that is completely unsuited to the form and substance of the documentary. If Plotkin is a little more nuanced (as hopefully he should be, playing himself, after all), the Indian actor is sadly pretty abysmal, making him laugh worthy at times (his reaction shot when he stumbles across a lost tribe is priceless).
If you can get past this night in amateursville, Amazon does offer an incredible bounty of sights and sounds, if not an overabundance of information about the huge river and its many denizens, human and otherwise. Like the river itself, Amazon is a sort of muddy affair, prone to meandering, but also offering a rare glimpse into sights very few humans have experienced.