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Movie review: Focus of 'Emperor' is too narrow
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Ed Symkus reviews movies for GateHouse News Service. A longtime features writer and film critic for TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, he can often be found at film junkets talking with celebrities. Find out what they have to say here.
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Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) enjoys a smoke while getting his picture taken.
March 8, 2013 3:20 p.m.

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.

The film opens on Aug. 6, 1945, with black-and-white footage of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, followed by shots of the resulting devastation. Off-screen narration about what was happening is provided by Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), who we soon realize, via a series of flashbacks, is upset over the disappearance of the Japanese woman he once loved.

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.

In a script that’s filled with discussions of power plays in the Far East, along with pieces of history lessons, and a too-brief study of MacArthur’s penchant for good public relations about himself (including regularly getting photographed), there’s promise of viewers learning a great deal about a tumultuous time.

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.

We’re brought back to his first meeting with Aya (Eriko Hatsune) when she was an exchange student in the States in 1932. A romance blossomed, she disappeared, he ended up in Japan in 1940 to do a research paper on “the minds of Japanese soldiers,” and they reunited.

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.

If only there was more of Fellers’ relationship with his Japanese driver, the always impeccably dressed Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda). The more that MacArthur makes unreasonable demands of Fellers, Fellers makes even tougher demands on Takahashi, even though he’s the best possible of right-hand men.

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.

Written by Vera Blasi and David Klass; directed by Peter Webber
With Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox
Rated PG-13

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