Recently I spoke to a college class about movies and writing. One student asked me if I had a favorite type of movie—a go-to genre that I'm automatically drawn to.
My not-entirely considered answer was the historical epic, which encompasses everything from Intolerance to Spartacus to Lincoln. I expressed my enjoyment of the way movies can re-create an entire world, bringing the past thrillingly to life.
But the new film Emperor, which tells a story of America's post-World War II occupation of Japan, is a reminder that it takes more than research, costumes and good intentions to make a compelling film. Lincoln came to life because of the near-limitless resources at Steven Spielberg's disposal, but also because screenwriter Tony Kushner and actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones brought real humans into being, with all their noble intentions, bad humors and personal vulnerabilities. Peter Webber's Emperor, by contrast, is little more than a museum diorama.
Which is too bad, because the story is an important one. It's late August 1945, and Japan has surrendered—finally, because Emperor Hirohito urged the country to yield after the twin devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (not to mention the "conventional" firebombing of Tokyo). Gen. Douglas MacArthur is under pressure to sate the war beasts in Washington by finding Hirohito guilty of war crimes. The Japan experts on his staff, led by Gen. Bonner Fellers, warn that to depose, charge and execute Hirohito would be a policy disaster. MacArthur orders Fellers to investigate Hirohito's conduct before and during the war, and this undertaking constitutes much of the film's action.
Interspersed with this investigation are flashbacks as Fellers remembers his pre-war romance with a beautiful, virginal and saintly Japanese schoolteacher (Eriko Hatsune). The filmmakers acknowledge inventing this character, the triteness of which only highlights the unimaginativeness of David Klass and Vera Blasi's script.
The real-life characters aren't much better. Fellers is unmemorably played by Matthew Fox (Lost), a lightweight who doesn't show enough invention to make his scenes more interesting. More promising is the presence of Tommy Lee Jones, who was so brilliant as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. As MacArthur, he dominates his scenes with his military-issue gruff barks, but he ultimately runs out of gas for want of a better script.
Credit the film for giving the Japanese a point of view: Fellers' interviews are mostly an opportunity for his interlocutors to provide explanations of Japan's conduct during the war, the cult of the emperor and the devotion to an ancient warrior code. One of them says that the Japanese soldier, in his ideological fervor, is capable of terrible crimes, while another confides that the emperor, for all his supposed godliness, is merely a figurehead for the military and bureaucratic powers that actually run the country. This is all interesting, but I often wished I was watching a documentary instead. At the end of a scene in which a Japanese diplomat recites the imperial crimes committed in Asia by the British, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Americans, Fellers cuts him off, saying, "I don't need a history lesson."
Unfortunately, that's all this film is, except for the stuff that was made up—which are the most boring parts. Spielberg's Lincoln, while not exactly a short, sprightly watch, at least earned its running time, leaving us with a full, vividly remembered meal. Emperor, on the other hand, is an undernourishing affair that manages to seem longer than its one hour and 45 minutes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reconstructing a war."