Historical drama can be a tricky topic. Attempts to manufacture tension from events long past where the audience presumably already knows the outcome means two things. First, it is in the telling of the story, and not the surprise-free ending, that the cinematic value is gleaned. Second, infusing these events with interests both human and historical means that we need to care about the fates of the people involved. This is especially true of film centering around the exhaustively explored period of World War II. Recycling stories that are often grim and, by now, in danger of being cliched, requires a level of excellence that exceeds the normal storytelling thresholds. Peter Webber’s new film, Emperor, is a case in point—this is a movie that tries to be that great war film, as well as a star-crossed romance and a political thriller, without really succeeding on any front.
The first crime of Emperor is the showcase of Tommy Lee Jones as Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The early press for the film led with clips of his performance, hoping to draw in an audience that would yearn to see the famously cantankerous veteran play a famously cantankerous veteran. But while Jones is full of his usual bluster and dry wit, it’s a very small sample size. He may be the driving force behind the Japanese inquisition at the end of the war, but he’s on screen for a paltry amount of time. A simple biopic might have been a much better idea, but alas, we’re left to wonder what the power- and fame-hungry MacArthur would have looked like if the narrative had gravitated his direction. Instead, the main story being told is that of General Bonner Fellers, a man with a distinct affinity for a Japanese woman and her culture at a time when it was very dangerous to be in love with anything Japanese.
Matthew Fox plays Fellers, and he does so with his standard likable brooding. He is charged with conducting a 10-day investigation to decide whether the Japanese emperor should be charged as a war criminal. To accomplish this, he goes on a journey of discovery, complete with awkward flashbacks to his budding romance. Fox can be useful in situations like this—exotic locations, doomed romance, earth-shaking consequences for his decisions. (Think Lost in the South Pacific.) But he shrinks from the moment here, by no small fault of the script. There’s virtually no chemistry in this hackneyed, blatantly symbolic relationship that plays out, and worse, Jones is the only one elevating the material whenever he shows up. As a result, the love story feels drab and forced even though it’s supposed to be the centerpiece. Screams for the return of their beloved become whimpers, vacating the impact of a relationship that is supposed to bring home central themes of love, unity and understanding. Clichés don’t beget nuance, no matter how many you pile on, and this conflagration of generalities means that there isn’t any empathy to be found for the central characters.
Outside the bounds of American Romeo and Japanese Juliet, there is still a mystery to be uncovered. Fellers is compelled to interrogate high-ranking Japanese officials about whether their emperor ordered the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. At one point, Fellers remarks to another American general that he “doesn’t need a history lesson.” Perhaps he should have held that conviction a bit stronger, because it appears he’s begging for one. Everyone he talks to, from high-ranking officials to ordinary citizens, are veritable founts of information regarding American-Pacific Rim relations. This is where Emperor becomes didactic, preaching about hard decisions in impossible times and the cultural differences that could unite if only they would stop bombing and hating each other. Fox’s gusto in the pursuit of answers is a pale shadow of Tom Cruise’s investigation in A Few Good Men. There’s no real suspense or dramatic tension—the screenwriting and spastic editing see to that. For these things to work, hope and humanity need to soar over the heads of procedural standbys. One need only look as far as the crop of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year (Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty) to understand that when it comes to historical drama, it isn’t the endgame that matters. It’s how they get there.
Director: Peter Webber
Writer: Vera Blasi, David Klass
Starring: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones
Release Date: Mar. 8, 2013 (Limited)