EMPEROR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Peter Webber, 2013
The filn Emperor is — well, let’s be honest and say Emperor could have been — the blistering behind-the-scenes tale of General Douglas MacArthur (played 0n all cylinders by Tommy Lee Jones) , the brilliant, charismatic and corncob-pipe-smoking World War 2 American General — the man who said “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away…” It’s about how he was saddled with the responsibility of governing Japan after the war, and what he did with it. With Jones‘ incredible performance at the center, it’s a movie that tries to make history come alive, and maybe could have, but unfortunately doesn’t quite.
Let’s be honest: This movie is largely a crock. Here’s what really happened, according to at least some of the eye-witnesses and historians. (It’s not necessarily what happens in the movie.) MacArthur decided to keep Japan, which was a country still worshipful of their shy emperor Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka), from boiling over during the American occupation by engineering the exoneration of the emperor. Hirohito indeed, might well have been executed as a war criminal, like Tojo and the rest, but for MacArthur’s “Operation Blacklist.”
Operation Blacklist had nothing to so with Dalton Trumbo and company, but was a clandestine scheme in which MacArthur’s war attaché General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a man sympathetic to the Japanese, interviewed Hirohito’s statesmen and palace people, and got them to co-ordinate their stories, so Hirohito could be saved. That’s a fascinating yarn. It might have made made a great movie. But it’s not the story that writers David Klass (Kiss the Girls) and Vera Blasi (Woman on Top) and director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) tell us here. What we get in this movie, at least according to some histories, is the cover story, invented to disguise what was really happening.
Jones does dominate the movie, but his role is a supporting one, and Operation Blacklist is never mentioned, never even hinted at. General Fellers, instead, takes center stage — even though we really don’t want him to, because he’s kind of a bore — and he conducts what we’re told is a legitimate investigation. Meanwhile, in a storybook knockoff of James Michener’s Sayonara (or Josh Logan’s), we see a flashback, apparently almost wholly concocted, in which Fellers falls in love with lovely and oh-so-civilized Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a beautiful Japanese student in American college, and then pursues her to Japan, withstands the rising tide of Japanese anti-Americanism that makes Aya now flee from him, and winds up diverting bombers from her neighborhood during the war to save her (fiction) and serving as MacArthur‘s clean-up guy for Hirohito (fictionalized fact).
The movie is a deadly bore, even though the filmmakers have decided to design and film it in a languorous, visually stunning manner that sometimes recalls actual postwar Japanese films, especially of the ’50s and ’60s. It didn’t work, I kept wanting to go home and watch an actual film by Kurosawa or Ozu or Mizoguchi on the DVD player. I wish I had.
I liked Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I didn’t have the feeling that its subject, painter Johannes Vermeer, was being travestied — even though that story played the romance card too. But why have Webber and the other moviemakers concocted a historical film that is so stupefying dull — and then tease us every once in a while, with some more of Jones’ MacArthur, and the shot of adrenaline he brings. Do they think that this absurd cross-cultural romance, which makes Sayonara look like Romeo and Juliet, is a reasonable substitute for what many believe actually happened? As Bonner keeps mooning after Aya, who keeps wandering off through picturesque trees, looking grief-stricken, and as we all sadly contemplate the ruins of a love that dare not be (and never was, in the first place), the movie gets duller and duller and duller. For God’s sake, you think, and even Hirohito’s and Gen. Fellers, bring on Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice. Bring on Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. Bring on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Or Bring on Mr. Jones, to goose things up again.
I’m in favor of making films like this one, but I’m not in favor of making them like this — floating along in a sea of romantic clichés, interrupted by pastiches of history. In real life, or so I read on The Internet, Gen. Fellers was briefly demoted to Colonel, made a serious enemy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and wound up a stalwart member of the ultra-right John Birch Society, whose founder-leader, Robert Welch, once accused Eisenhower of being a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. Frankly, at the end, General Fellers sounds like a dedicated conscious agent of a conspiracy of idiots. If Aya had been running away from that guy, she probably would have been smart.
The Chicago Tribune’s Mike Phillips suggests that instead of Emperor, you try to watch Russian art film master Akeksandr Sokurov’s 2005 post-war-set Hirohito-meets-MacArthur drama, The Sun. I admire that film too, though most audiences bred on Hollywood history may find it a little pokey. (The Sun is slow, but it has substance and artistry as compensations.) Meanwhile, thank God for Tommy Lee Jones, an old actor who never dies, and never fades away either. Playing MacArthur, he wins the war that the others lose. And, as Godzilla might have said to the Emperor and his court, before a little green tea over rice: Sayonara, suckers.