Movie review: Focus of 'Emperor' is too narrow

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald
Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) enjoys a smoke while getting his picture taken.

The Hollywood-versus-history game gets another go-around in this newest offering that sticklers will no doubt find inauthentic. But “Emperor” is no “Zero Dark Thirty” (Americans portrayed as torturing terror suspects) or “Lincoln” (Honest Abe speaking with black soldiers on the battlefield) or “Argo” (How come no one has mentioned that the whole ending was made up?).

Here we’ve got what seems to be a truthfully told story of what happened in Japan at the end of WWII, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to rebuild the place, but also find out if Emperor Hirohito was guilty of war crimes.

But he doesn’t have much time to think about her, because he’s summoned to the office of “the old man” – MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) – who orders him round up associates of the emperor, interview them, and find out if Hirohito should be returned to a leadership position or hanged. Oh, yeah, and you have 10 days to accomplish this.

But while the story spins forward rapidly, making sure to point out how difficult it was to get the proud Japanese military men to say anything against their leader, it also shoots out in a wholly different direction, taking far too much time to deal with Gen. Fellers’ emotional distress.

These were the story’s happier days, and the world is a brighter, more colorful place in the flashbacks. But there are so many of them, and they turn out to be so distracting from the more interesting story of MacArthur’s bullying demands on Fellers, they actually ruin the flow of the film.

Fellers is thoughtful and intelligent, and he knows a lot about Japan. But the film also could have used more about the culture clash he falls victim to, despite all of that. At its most basic level, this is about how war tears people apart. It’s a pity that the film leans so much on one man’s emotional turmoil rather than the bigger and far more interesting picture of history in the making.

Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media.