Movies based on historical events don’t have to be boring, with “Argo,” “Apollo 13” and “Saving Private Ryan” being a few of my favorites. Often times when making a movie based on real events, creative liberties must be taken so that the story is compelling to watch on-screen. Unfortunately, Peter Webber’s “Emperor” doesn’t translate well to the screen.
Inspired by a true story, “Emperor” takes place in post WWII Japan. General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) receives an order from General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to investigate the emperor’s involvement in WWII. And Based on Gen. Fellers’ findings, Gen. MacArthur will either recommend to the U.S. government that the emperor be charged with war crimes or that the Japanese leader be granted immunity. In addition to carrying out this impossible task, Fellers is set on finding his lost love, a Japanese girl he met in college named Aya (Eriko Hatsune). As Fellers begins to interrogate imprisoned Japanese leaders from the military, government and imperial court, it becomes clear that he may never learn the truth about the emperor’s involvement.
Gen. Fellers faces a difficult task in convincing the emperor’s men to speak the truth and potentially endanger the emperor’s life, a man the Japanese people consider to be a god. By far, this is the movie’s most compelling angle. The fact that these men would rather sacrifice themselves through suicide, lifetime imprisonment or death so as to not incriminate one man surely makes for an interesting read. However, I’m not certain it makes for an interesting movie, especially when most of Fellers’ interrogations lead to nowhere.
When Sellers isn’t interrogating these influential men, he is pining over Aya. Flashbacks are used throughout to show how they met and how they came to be separated. No doubt the screenwriters, Vera Blasi and David Klass, created the love story to liven up the movie and make Fellers multi-faceted. Unfortunately, Matthew Fox and his robotic acting fail to humanize Fellers. The love story itself seems like a shallow attempt at giving the film more depth. And when Fellers finally uncovers what happened to Aya, there’s no sense of satisfaction, or much of anything.
“Emperor” does have one redeeming quality: Tommy Lee Jones. His performance as Gen. MacArthur mirrors the actor’s own gruff demeanor. And while MacArthur might have been an opportunist, the movie shows just how important he was in the reconstruction of Japan, something I knew nothing about.
The enormity of Gen. Fellers’ investigation is made apparent throughout “Emperor,” but it never felt like a high stakes situation to me. And if filmmakers want tension that’s palpable, the audiences must feel a sense of urgency. In the end, “Emperor” will be forgotten by most.