Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in "Emperor." (Palm Springs Film Festval )
The scene is a devastated Japan, August 1945, as "Emperor," the new historical drama starring Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones, begins. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are little more than smoking rubble and stone-faced survivors. Emperor Hirohito has officially surrendered but remains protected behind palace walls.
Into the morass strides World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Jones). He has exactly 10 days to decide whether to put the emperor on trial for war crimes and a cultural expert in Gen. Bonner Fellers (Fox) at his side to run the assessment.
Japan's postwar future and MacArthur's dreams of the presidency hang in the balance, while power plays on both sides threaten. Storm clouds loom, tense times.
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If we can trust history, MacArthur made the right call — Hirohito was exonerated and a reconstructed Japan became an international powerhouse. Regrettably, "Emperor" does not match MacArthur's vigor, or mine his legacy. Instead, the movie is Fellers' tale and dryly told.
I'd be tempted to say director Peter Webber's film feels rather like typical History channel cannon fodder if not for the cable mainstay's smashing success last year with "Hatfields & McCoys." Yet for any number of reasons, the movie does play ever so small, failing to command that larger-than-life screen on which it sits so uncomfortably.
The first of the film's missteps is that Fox, charismatic for so many years on "Lost," is turned into a tin soldier unable to carry the weight of the entire film. At his makeshift Tokyo office, Fellers is just so much saluting and "Yes, sir-ing." The scholar/military man only comes to life when he's slipping off to search for his lost love. Did I mention "Emperor" is also a love story?
This is slip-up number two. The filmmakers chose to amp up historical fact with fanciful romantic fiction, as if the reality of the times weren't enough. It's not necessarily a fatal choice, but there is a reason a movie like "Casablanca" is considered a classic — its heady blend of war, love and the greater good hitting all the right notes. In "Emperor," the disparate pieces never quite fit.
The love story, however, is when the movie is most compelling. Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) is the Japanese schoolteacher the future general fell for in college and followed back to Japan, only to be separated as the country took Germany's side. Now he's desperate to find out whether she's survived. As forced as that might sound, Fox finally relaxes around the spirited Hatsune as they pretty up the gauzy flashbacks juxtaposed with post-war wreckage, all captured by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh.
Webber, who did such an effective job of holding things together for 2003's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," another quasi-historical drama-romance, seems completely out of sync with "Emperor." The war crimes and romance stories theoretically run on parallel tracks, but the overall pacing is ragged and the dialogue frequently out of step with the characters we've met.
Which brings us to the crux of the problem — the screenplay. Apparently it was a tag-team effort starting with David Klass ("Desperate Measures"), then later picked up by Vera Blasi ("Woman on Top").
The war crimes investigation gets underway like a "CSI" procedural as Fellers tacks up photos of key Japanese military and political operatives. A series of the higher-ups are marched in and politely interviewed to help Fellers determine whether Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka) was merely a figurehead rather than a war monger. In particular, MacArthur wants to know whether Hirohito ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Since the movie also hopes to do justice to the essential spirit of Japan, it must take Fellers out into the field. A local dive bar becomes the most frequent bridge between his paperwork and his memories of, or search for, Aya, who in turn represents the film's cultural connection. It can be a bit clumsy at times, but it gets us there.
Back at headquarters Jones, whose recent turn in "Lincoln" earned him an Oscar nomination, is unexpectedly charming as MacArthur. The actor milks the general's favorite stance — chest out, hands gripping his waist, elbows askew, wide grin, photographers snapping away. The moments are short-lived though, the general only a fringe player — but then so is any real sense of history.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violent content, brief strong language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes; English, Japanese with English subtitles
Playing: In general release
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