They don’t make ’em like that anymore, but that’s exactly what Peter Webber has done with Emperor, a sweeping, old fashioned WWII drama about a truly momentous but little known moment in the history of American diplomacy. Just a few years ago, the story of General MacArthur’s right hand man Bonner Fellers’ covert mission to uncover the truth about the Emperor of Japan’s role in World War II and the decision to attack Pearl Harbor would have been a dead lock for awards consideration. Tommy Lee Jones in commanding form as military icon Douglas MacArthur would have been a Best Supporting Actor nomination you could’ve placed bets on.
But these days, the kind of films that use words as weapons don’t stand a chance against anything with blokes in silly horned hats, firing destructive energy blast out of spectres. Indeed, a film like Emperor has no place in the latex multiplex and nail-bitingly tense procedural dramas of this kind have all found a new home on the small screen. Webber’s film may be out of time in its subject and period setting, but his answer for audiences who want CGI-addled fantasies over gritty slices of history is to push his film further into the traditions of cinema’s past.
After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a nation to its knees, General MacArthur’s successful dismantling of the Japanese empire whilst maintaining a fragile armistice, was wholly dependent upon General Bonner Fellers’ (Matthew Fox) verdict of whether or not the Emperor ought to be deposed and put on trial for war crimes. With 3.5 million Japanese troops on edge and ready to strike, world peace hangs into the balance, yet it’s the very personal mutual uncertainty MacArthur and Fellers have of of each other’s agendas that makes Emperor a neo-noir in the mould of genre classics like The Third Man. In the moral shadows of profound questions about revenge and justice, MacArthur is a Machiavellian figure, a master manipulator weighing the world’s fate against larger personal ambitions and positioning Fellers as a fall guy if the outcome of their decision blows up in his face.
Emperor also has much to say about the clash of disparate cultures and how necessary it is to truly understand your enemy, both in times of war and peace. An ensemble of some of Japan’s finest actors bring a complex humanity to the Emperor’s most trusted advisors, not afforded them in classroom history lessons. 1945 is but a stone’s throw in the grand sweep of history and it’s important to remember what we’re sadly already starting to forget – perhaps even more so, the world-changing events about which we know so little to begin with.
An intellectually challenging entertainment, just like Fellers at the end of film, Emperor will make the viewer ask questions of the peace process. Questions which are compellingly relevant to our own times of international conflict.
This weighty but utterly absorbing and impeccably acted drama, is absolutely worth seeking out on its very limited release and while it may have bombed in America, it’d be a crime if the same thing happened here. With thousands, rather than hundreds of years in our nation’s history, I’d still like to believe there’s an interest for this sort of film, one that’s worth remembering come Oscar time, when even the widely reviled likes of Diana, has more chance of picking up a token nomination.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 5, 2013