“I don’t need a history lesson!” General Bonner Fellers tells a Japanese official.
Well, he gets one anyway, and so do we with Peter Webber’s dry and airless not-so-fact-based World War II drama “Emperor.”
In 1945, the United States military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. In 2013, Roadside Attractions drops one on us.
“Emperor” stars recent Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur, who assumed the rank of supreme commander of the conquered nation and set out to determine what should be done with the country’s beloved leader, Emperor Hirohito.
Should he be tried for war crimes and hanged? Should he be exonerated and set free as a gesture of good will between the former opposing forces?
MacArthur, transparently preparing for a future presidential run back in the USA, taps General Fellers (“Lost” star Matthew Fox) as his researcher and potential patsy on the issue. MacArthur orders Fellers to deliver his assessment on how the emperor should be handled.
Fellers, as it turns out, is uniquely qualified to make this call, because he has lived in Japan before the war and not only understands the culture, he really loves it. He also loves Aya (Eriko Hatsune), a pretty Japanese schoolteacher he meets and romances.
Fellers loves her so much that when he lays out bombing runs over Japan, he makes sure that the planes avoid areas where Aya might be.
Right now would be a good time to reveal that Aya is a fictional character added to give the movie an obligatory Hollywood romantic subplot. She never existed as Fellers’ real-life romance interest, nor did Fellers divert bombing runs to save her.
This truth-challenged subplot is the least of this problematic movie’s shortcomings.
Webber, the British filmmaker mostly known for directing the critically lauded “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and horrific “Hannibal Rising,” handles “Emperor” exactly like the aforementioned dry and airless history lesson.
That Webber hails from a background of making documentaries is even further confounding, as if he merged the least interesting parts of documentaries with the standard-issue structure of a Hollywood feature.
There’s a morose pallor coloring every frame of “Emperor” as if the cast and crew shot each scene while feeling grumpy and out-of-sorts. This even extends into a couple of wince-inducing slow-motion scenes of Aya and Fellers frolicking among the bamboo shoots before the war.
As Aya, Hatsume is a pretty emptiness while Fox’s quietly aggressive Fellers appears to have two acting modes: beaten up and not beaten up.
Jones, coming off his flashy Oscar-nominated role as Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s own historical drama “Lincoln,” turns the flamboyantly egotistic MacArthur into a less enthralling reserved extrovert.
“Emperor” has its noteworthy elements, especially the throat-gripping and desolate post-nuclear cityscapes from production designer Grant Major. And the superb Japanese actors who look as if Webber’s casting director plucked the performers right out of a history book and let Oscar-winning costume designer Ngila Dickson swaddle them in marvelously authentic gear.
The movie’s single emotionally honest moment arrives near the end, when the anticipated meeting between MacArthur and the emperor takes place. Hirohito (played with deep empathy by Takataro Kataoko) utters a single sentence — humbly asking MacArthur to punish him, not the Japanese people — and it packs more power than everything else in this feature film.
Here it becomes evident that the anglo-centric screenplay by David Klass and Vera Blasi missed the most compelling story behind this historic event, the one that belongs only to the Japanese.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.