On it’s long and fairly tedious journey through a series of melodramatic war movie clichés, Emperor does get one thing right: casting Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur. No one does “uptight, hyper-masculine, old bad-ass” quite as well as Jones and in MacArthur, the man might have found the role he was born to play. Whenever Jones is marching around and barking orders, he’s at his curmudgeonly best and the movie feels like it has purpose. The only trouble is that he’s a minor character in a movie that’s mostly about a bunch of dry meetings between Matthew Fox and series of Japanese officials and a pointless love story that never ceases to kill any sense of momentum, action, or drama. Given that Emperor is, at least in theory, a war movie, those are pretty key components to blow.
The film takes place after Japan had nuclear bombs dropped in it during World War II, and the American army shows up to figure out what’s to be done with country. Jones is in charge as MacArthur, but the movie is really about Matthew Fox’s General Bonner Fellers. He was in charge of investigating Emperor Hirohito’s (Takata rô Kataoka) involvement in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Fox essentially spends the movie whisked from one meeting with a colleague of Hirohito’s to the next, trying to piece together the story. Some meetings can be tense. Most are merely dry and conversational with two leading military figures of opposing countries confronting their cultural differences and approach to war. That’s all fairly interesting, but unfortunately almost as much screen time is wasted on a B-plot involving Fox’s romance with a Japanese girl (Eriko Hatsune) that he fell in love with in college before the war. I guess it’s supposed to put a human face on the lives lost during the nuclear strike, but that’s all there in the interview/interrogation sequences, anyway. All the love story really adds to the movie are opportunities for Fox to cry on camera and the audience to take a bathroom break.
There are interesting themes and ideas to be explored in Emperor. The Japanese values of honor, loyalty, and devotion prevent the officers and politicians surrounding Hirohito from revealing too much about their beloved emperor, which makes it difficult for the Americans to press for details. The cultural dichotomy faced in the awkward peace following war is intriguing, as is the film’s exploration of the challenges and moral complexity of occupation following surrender (particularly in light of America’s current difficulties with occupation).
The trouble is that the inert, talky script from Vera Blasi and David Kess never really digs for much beyond the obvious, while Peter Webber’s (Hannibal Rising) flat direction turns a potentially taut post war drama into a series of needless lengthy conversations and melodramatic emotional beats. It’s a movie that wants so desperately to be taken seriously that it squanders any and all relatable human emotion in favor of somber self-importance. Aside from Jones, the entire cast acts like they are in a collective coma. The director might call it post-war malaise, but it feels more like the work of bored actors and filmmakers who forgot why they were even making the movie somewhere in the middle of production. Only Jones provides any hint of life in his snarling performance and he gets only a handful of scenes despite his prominence in the marketing. Admittedly, the climatic conversation/confrontation between Jones and Karaoka has some sting, but by then it’s too little too late.
Movies like Emperor exist only because movie awards exist. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in the limp biscuit of a production ever felt excited by the story’s potential or felt they were going to impress audiences. Nope, it just seems like everyone involved considered the movie “important” without understanding why and hoped to snag a few nominations to improve their respective careers. That approach to filmmaking is as empty as any overproduced popcorn blockbuster and in a way is even worse, since at least the silliest works of expensive Hollywood trash don’t bore audiences in their cynical quest. Emperor might not be the most egregious example of that type of filmmaking ever made (that title has to be reserved for something by Tom Hooper or Lasse Hallstrom), but it is a particularly tedious example of the form. The good news is that the approach didn’t work this time. The movie didn’t even get an awards run release and its tumble into deserved obscurity is almost complete.