Playing a formidable, crusty history maker in supporting mode, Tommy Lee Jones keeps things watchable, but a dull lead character and a fabricated romance doom vitality and credibility in “Emperor.”
This latest release from Hollywood's history-as-entertainment tap dramatizes an investigation led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur into whether Japan Emperor Hirohito should be tried for war crimes.
Director Peter Webber (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), working from a screenplay by David Klass and Vera Blasi — based on the book “His Majesty’s Salvation” by Shiro Okamoto — presents the postwar episode as a combined history lesson, procedural and personal melodrama, with declining results.
In an opening scene, MacArthur (Jones) arrives in Japan in 1945 to take control of and rebuild the U.S.-bombed country. Complete with corncob pipe, he deplanes and shows his Japanese welcomers some “old-fashioned American swagger.” MacArthur and company then begin arresting former officials and other suspected criminals.
The drama centers on the fate of Hirohito, who remains loved by his people and considered by some to be a living god. Did the emperor order the attack on Pearl Harbor? If he did, he will hang, and many in Washington desire that verdict.
MacArthur assigns Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a Japan expert, to conduct the Hirohito investigation. As he questions arrested ministers and those closest to the emperor, and navigates centuries-old codes of Japanese honor and loyalty, Fellers cannot come up with the evidence necessary for exoneration. At the same time, no one will incriminate the emperor.
It is no secret that Hirohito was spared, of course, and the film indicates that MacArthur desired that outcome all along. Such concerns include how hanging Hirohito would have ruined U.S.-Japan postwar relations and possibly pushed Japan into ties with the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, whenever that story line gets interesting, the film lapses into a sorry subplot involving an old romance Fellers had with a Japanese teacher, Aya (Eriko Hatsune).
This invented thread, which implies that Aya is helping Fellers make his decision about Hirohito's fate, goes nowhere compelling or believable.
Another problem is Fellers’ center-stage treatment, and that Fox plays him flat and boring.
Jones, conversely, adds crucial juiciness to the drama with his swearing, strutting MacArthur, and also brings nuance and complexity. A passage about the headline-making MacArthur-Hirohito meeting (also depicted in Aleksandr Sokurov's superior film “The Sun”) exemplifies the possibilities of the well-cast character.
In the end, “Emperor” is sufficiently informative, dramatically frustrating, and crosses credibility lines too wrongheadedly and too often. It’s interesting, but not enlightening or moving.