Mar 8, 2013

Needing more TL Jones and less love.

Grade: C+
Director: Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
Screenplay: Vera Blasi (Tortilla Soup), David Klass (Walking Tall), from the Shiro Okamoto book.
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), Matthew Fox (Alex Cross)
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 98 min.
by John DeSando

"Let's show 'em some good old-fashioned American swagger," General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones)

In Emperor, there’s just not enough of MacArthur’s swagger, which briefly is showcased by the always swaggering Tommy Lee Jones. The potentially heroic and insightful possibilities inherent in General Bonner Fellers’ (Matthew Fox, not as impressive as say, John Hamm might have been) task from MacArthur after the surrender of Japan in WWII to determine if Emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) should be hanged for war crimes are mitigated by a silly love story that never happened and the accompanying reduction of time given to the fascinating deliberations.

For those who have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, about Louis Zamparini’s interment in a Japanese POW camp, Emperor has immediate resonance but gives the Japanese war crimes short shrift.  Zamparini suffered immeasurably as did many other Americans—that detail about Japanese abuse juxtaposed with America’s Atomic bombing of two Japanese cities and internment of Japanese living in America could have provided a rich moral conflict only superficially treated in Emperor.

Besides the waste of time with the trumped up romance between Fellers and Japanese schoolteacher Aya (Eriko Hatsune)(Fellers was actually married during his tour of Japan), the film gives too little attention to the difficult details of determining if the Emperor was guilty of starting the war.  Also, Fellers’ voice over narration is an example of how this plot device can go wrong.  In the case of Emperor, it promises a complexity and “shades of grey” that never materialize.

When MacArthur and the Emperor meet, the film takes on a greatness for brief moments, much as FDR and King George VI’s meeting in Hyde Park on Hudson vitalizes that equally disappointing historical drama. I wish filmmakers would have faith in their historical material and not rely on garden-variety romances to please I don’t know whom.

The Emperor as God and MacArthur as a supreme egotist is story enough for several films.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel.
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