“We must be seen as liberators, not conquerors,” Tommy Lee Jones‘ crusty General MacArthur says in the opening moments of “Emperor,” and that line of dialogue is about as thematically rich as the film gets. A modestly budgeted, respectfully executed post-WWII drama, the film is also entirely edgeless, and aside from a couple of swear words is ready to be shown in classrooms and on the History Channel in endless repeats. As a big-screen outing, it’s a very minor war film, that traps one actor in a miscalculated character and doesn’t give us enough of another, who is clearly the best thing in the picture overall.
Of the former, we’re talking about Matthew Fox, who nabs himself a considerable post-“Lost” lead role but isn’t given the best material to work with. He plays General Bonner Fellers, who is tasked by MacArthur to investigate whether or not the U.S. government should arrest and prosecute Japan’s Emperor Hirohito for war crimes. It’s a helluva task, and Bonner is put under the gun, given only ten days to do the legwork to find evidence to implicate or exonerate the Emperor. So he does what anyone else in this situation, where the fate of a nation and the balance of peace is on the line, would do — with the aide of his driver, he uses this opportunity to find out what happened to the Japanese woman he fell in love with before the war.
While the script from David Klass and Vera Blasi attempts to honor the dichotomy and complexity of Japanese culture — how guiding principles influence both how things appear, and how they really are — it’s too bad the one Japanese character who could theoretically best represent that is so underserved. Eriko Hatsuno plays Aya, a young woman that Bonner met at college, who described herself to him as being out of step with her family for being too outspoken. Unfortunately, we never get to see that quality as Aya gets little dialogue, and spends most of the picture blushing, not speaking to Bonner and theatrically reacting and swooning to the various bumps in the road their relationship weathers.
These flashback sequences, which essentially serve half the narrative of the already slim 90-some-odd minute movie, tend to grind the picture to a halt. And moreover, they cut short the much more interesting story going on with Bonner’s actual task at hand. Navigating layers of military and political figures to try and find out who made the key decisions to enter World War II, the movie flirts with delving into the fascinating loyalties, betrayals and behind the scenes manuvering that led to Pearl Harbor and more. But, for better or worse, “Emperor” simply isn’t that movie, so all of that potentially weighty and rich material is shorthanded so we can get back to finding out why Aya left the United States without telling Bonner, didn’t return any of the letters he sent.
This misguided subplot — presumably tacked on in a bid to court a female audience, in addition to underscoring Bonner’s appreciation of Japan with all the nuance of a Hallmark card — means that director Peter Webber is forced to leave Jones behind in a supporting role. And it’s a shame because the actor delivers a performance that deserves a much better movie than the one he’s in. Every moment he’s on screen, he enlivens the overly sober picture with a raw humor that is infectious, finding the balance between MacArthur’s charisma and taciturnity. Jones is clearly having a ball playing the outsized personality, and he brings some spirit to the proceedings, but his presence is very limited.
To the filmmakers’ credit, even if you know history (and thus know how this one ends), “Emperor” does do a good job of building some decent tension around MacArthur’s final decision. And while giving Bonner an arch rival within the military who is wary of his being a “Jap lover” and who aims to bring him down in a plot strand that goes nowhere, the procedural elements are efficient and compelling. The movie is never without forward momentum, it’s too bad that just when it’s ready to go to interesting places, we jump back to Bonner and Aya’s pedestrian romance.
All told, “Emperor” delivers a perfectly servicable wartime movie, with its intentions in the right place. At the same time its harmlessness and adherence to a formulaic storytelling style means the flim has no voice of its own and at its worst can feel like the cinematic equivalent of making sure you get enough fiber in your diet. But Tommy Lee Jones makes the endeavor worthwhile, pointing toward the better film that could have been made, instead of the one we got. [C]