Directed by Peter Webber
Written by David Klass & Vera Blasi
For somebody like me, who is quite passionate about history, my reaction to a film like this could be quite different from one who could care less. Complicating things further is the type of history presented in the film. As a lover of history, I often find myself in the minority in terms of those who prefer social and political history over the mighty and popular military and war history. The personal stories and development of society are just far more fascinating to me than this guy shooting at that guy (the use of the world “guy” specifically there is no mistake either). I would rather see a film about reconstruction than the Civil War, especially since there have already been some good Civil War films, yet I couldn’t name one Reconstruction film (I did appreciate the focus of last year’s Lincoln for this reason, even though it technically took place during the war; and Gone with the Wind might qualify, but only because it is long enough to encompass the war and reconstruction). I bring all this up because Emperor deals with the time period just following the close of World War II, definitely a time period that is not covered in Hollywood, well, pretty much ever.
General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) is the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Japan after the surrender, and by his side is his trusted aid, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who affection for the Asian country is second to none in the controlling American outfit. So when MacArthur, whose hand has been forced by Washington, appoints Fellers to investigate the Emperor Hirohito for war crimes with a schedule of just 10 days, Fellers must fight the incredibly loyal Japanese culture to come to the right conclusion for the future of the country he loves so dearly. And why does he love it so? Because his forgotten sweetheart, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), whom he met while in college in the States, is from a small town in Japan. Her fate is of even greater concern, it seems, than that of the Emperor.
The first hurdle that must be jumped with this film is the fact that it is not so much about the Emperor Hirohito, despite the title. Hirohito is the subject of the investigation conducted by Fox’s Fellers, but he is rarely seen, and his character is certainly never really explored. The second hurdle that must also be immediately jumped is the fact that this film is not so much about Douglas MacArthur either, despite how the marketing for the film has suggested that this is Tommy Lee Jones’ movie. It is not. Neither of these are things that could, by default, discredit the worthiness of the film, but it is an adjustment that must be made. And Tommy Lee Jones is not bad in this, but he is rarely on screen and has so few lines that calling his a bit part is almost a stretch. Not wasted, but perhaps underutilized would be the better way of describing the situation. This is not The Last Emperor, nor is it Patton. Know that going in.
Where the screenplay does take us, along with General Fellers, is actually a potentially entertaining one as it interweaves the romance he has with Aya with the meaningful social impact of his decision on the Emperor. However, with that immense potential we are only ever really left with a generically penned romance, and an afterthought of a thriller that merely feigns philosophical musings. It becomes a film that seems to get tangled up within itself and its own ambitions, which is a shame because director Peter Webber is doing some nice things visually. He has a certain attention to detail, to the little things, that not only make a pretty picture, but also often add depth to an inspired narrative. Unfortunately this time we only get the pretty pictures, as the inspired narrative has gone missing.
The experience of the film, as it was happening, was enjoyable enough, but due to the nature of the film, as one that can easily be lost among a handful of soldier-in-love pictures, the film was instantly forgettable. Webber held my attention during the film, but as soon as I had left the cinema I had moved on to other things and was left with no real pang to dwell on it further, despite having attempted to bring up a handful of meaningful topics, such as cultural difference and understanding, the fact that we may be different or think differently than other nations, and that doesn’t necessarily make either one of us right. But not enough time is ever spent on any one topic, as the film strings itself out too long, while keeping the runtime too short to rise to any of its ambitions. Matthew Fox’s performance pretty much sums up the film quite nicely: it’s fine, but ultimately will be lost even among the worst of the year, as it finds that crack between the good and the bad, being left to be forgotten somewhere in the interim.
** 1/2 – Good