“Let’s show them some good old-fashioned American swagger.” – Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur
That, my friends, is how Peter Webber’s historical drama Emperor starts out. An iconic figure muttering some almost cheesy yet curiously badass catch phrase type line, setting us up for a rousing war drama about the reconstruction of a once powerful nation. Time to watch America dole out some furious justice on a people who so viciously attacked Pearl Harbor as General MacArthur and his right hand General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) interrogate all major Japanese players when they are tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito should be hanged for war crimes or be found innocent. This is going to be some exciting stuff, right?
You can imagine my curiosity when a love story was introduced rather early between General Fellers and a Japanese exchange student he met at college named Aya, which actually turned out to be a more important detail than first expected. Apparently General Fellers had let his emotions take the better of his decision making at certain times, picking bombing targets for example, as he always kept Aya’s safety first. Using the provided cultural resources and his close proximity to his advantage, Fellers tries to balance his military duties with his personal detective work, just wanting to know if his precious Aya survived our atomic attack or was incinerated like so many other Japanese citizens. Could he keep his passions at bay while focusing on the task at hand? That’s the drama!
Here’s the thing, I don’t want anyone to think I went into Emperor thinking we’d get some grandiose war epic – I understand the historical period. I was ready for the blame pointing and abundance of questioning scenes, and the lesser-know love story interestingly brings humanity to facts we thought we knew. That said, I found myself both loving and hating the back and forth as General Fellers goes from determined truth-seeker to gushy, love-struck college student.
While this isn’t a wag of the finger towards Matthew Fox and his performance, which felt authentically militarized and emotionally complex, nor a complaint against Webber’s style, I found it hard being equally invested in both Hirohito’s fate and Aya’s questioned survival. The flashbacks to Fellers’ relationship separate his real-time work post WWII, and while this is meant to offer variety to the audience, it deflated the historical implications somewhat for me. I personally would have loved to see a longer opening flashback which got the romantic background out of the way early, and then let the central focus of the film be only Fellers’ decision at hand. Have him continue searching, obviously, as we watch him frantically hope his love Aya is safe somewhere, but a constant flow of interrogations and conversations with General MacArthur could have actually balanced both dramatic elements, like evening a scale with two separate weights on each side.
Speaking of General MacArthur, how could I review Emperor without discussing Tommy Lee Jones’ characteristic portrayal of this historical big-wig? Complete with his cartoonishly large corncob pipe, Jones plays a rawhide rough senior citizen full of attitude, zest, and wise intelligence as only Jones could – which was both a positive and negative for me.
On the positive side, Tommy Lee Jones was a complete riot as General MacArthur, delivering punctuated line after line in his iconic southern delivery, believably making himself into an older authority figure. On the negative side, it didn’t feel like I was watching a famous actor characterizing Douglas MacArthur, but instead witnessing a phenomenal actor just dress up and imitate MacArthur like a untimely Halloween costume. While Jones absolutely looked the part and even mimicked MacArthurs iconic poses, never once did I see Jones transform into the character he was playing. It was a simple case of “Tommy Lee Jones plays General MacArthur” instead of “Tommy Lee Jones as General MacArthur.
Visually, Peter Webber is able to stage some wonderful shots though, right down to reenacting that famous snapshot of General MacArthur standing awkwardly next to the God-like Emperor Hirohito, which goes against one of the first rules our crazy American is told. Tommy Lee Jones and Takatarô Kataoka again prove to be excellent choices for their famous roles, and the scene that defined Emperor for me rightfully was the landmark meeting between the two minds. We all know how history played out, so I doubt I have to describe anything, but Webber perfectly exemplifies how monumental of an occurrence it was for Hirohito to even agree to such a request, made light-hearted by MacArthur’s disregard of almost every rule he was given in order to meet Hirohito. It was a perfect little snippet of history brought vibrantly to life by cinema – what better way to learn, kids!
Emperor isn’t focused on the devastation caused by our atomic bomb, but instead the rebuilding process of a once great nation. This couldn’t be possible without the help of General Douglas MacArthur and General Bonner Fellers, who are played respectfully by Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox. I’ll admit it took me a few days to actually admit Jones was the right choice, at first finding his zero personality shift to be distracting, but after carful analysis I can now admit his performance works so damn well, who really cares if it’s just Tommy Lee Jones in a tan military outfit? Sure, I may not a agree with the numerous tonal shifts and insertion of so much love-heavy side-story material, but Webber’s take on this turbulent period of time is still a positive one – I would have loved a little more of that “swagger” though…
Emperor doesn't rule with an iron fist, but Tommy Lee Jones is just too entertaining to ignore - even if he barely changed his persona to play General MacArthur.