"I don't need a history lesson, Your Excellency," the true-blue American general tells Emperor Hirohito's ex-prime minister when he lectures his inquisitor about the bloody imperialist actions of Great Britain and America, along with Japan, in the new film "Emperor."
The Yank may not need a history lesson. But the movie could use one, along with a more confident brand of historical fiction to shore it up. A little bit true, a lotta invented, this wan drama stars Matthew Fox as one of World War II's intriguing supporting players: Gen. Bonner Fellers (1896-1973), who served as military attache and psychological warfare director under Gen. Douglas MacArthur after Japan's surrender in 1945.
In director Peter Webber's film, taken from a script by David Klass and Vera Blasi and based on a novel by Seiro Okamoto, Fellers becomes the hardy soul of humane U.S.-Japanese relations. In the invented part of the script, his assignment in Tokyo carries more than military resonance. Back in the '30s, as a college kid in America, he met and courted a Japanese student (played by Eriko Hatsune) who then returned to Japan and disappeared. Fellers spends most of "Emperor" interviewing members of Hirohito's inner circle to determine whether or not they're deserving of war-crimes charges. All the while, the movie edition of Fellers is plagued by flashbacks of his love in happier times. He deploys his translator and driver to determine if she survived the Allied attacks on her homeland — aerial raids, we're told, that Fellers helped steer away from her likely whereabouts. That's love: ensuring that countless other civilians die in the name of that one special person.
Tommy Lee Jones comes and goes agreeably as MacArthur, here depicted as a publicity-seeking but generally great man. How is he compared with Laurence Olivier's MacArthur in "Inchon"? That's like comparing one grade-A ham to an entirely different grade-A ham. But Jones doesn't go over the top, as Olivier did. Neither does "Emperor." It's tame by temperament and by design. Shot in New Zealand, the picture's images of a devastated postwar Tokyo are often impressive, blending old-fashioned production design and effects work with digital flourishes. But Fox's role, central though it may be, never comes to life.
I confess I went into "Emperor" not realizing the protagonist, Fellers, was a real person. Does a movie owe the actual Fellers any degree of documentary truth? No. But the movie version of the man is mostly nonsense: The romance with Hatsune's schoolteacher plays like hackneyed fiction (inspired by some of Fellers' correspondence and references to "a friend"), and it doesn't help having Fox say things like, "This is a nation of contradictions." Little is made of the widely held belief, backed up by the historical record (in John W. Dower's "Embracing Defeat," among other nonfiction accounts), that Fellers and MacArthur worked the investigation into Japanese war crimes so that Hirohito's colleagues could get their stories straight in advance, thereby exonerating Hirohito and preventing the emperor from standing trial.
The real movie here, I suspect, is the one that wasn't made: the movie making something eccentrically vital out of the climactic meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito. In fact that film has been made. The strange and inspired Aleksandr Sokurov chamber drama "The Sun" (2005) tells its own version, mostly imagining a few hours in the ceremonial life of the emperor in the wake of war's end. See it sometime. This one's likely to vex both history buffs and those who require some drama with their drama.
'Emperor' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violent content, brief strong language and smoking — historical)
Running time: 1:46