Gen. Douglas MacArthur, according to many historians, was fatally flawed by delusions of grandeur. Architect of the U.S. Army's Pacific Theater operations during World War II and supreme commander of American occupation forces in post-war Japan, MacArthur was ultimately humiliated in 1951, when he was relieved of command by President Harry Truman for overreaching his authority, pulling the plug on MacArthur's own aspirations for political office.
But unlike the man MacArthur, Emperor, a new movie that deconstructs the myth of MacArthur, achieves its greatness by using a sweeping historic canvas as backdrop to an intimate tale of doubt, not unlike David Lean's A Passage to India or Warren Beatty's Reds.
Expertly filmed and edited, Emperor is the first great film of 2013.
Director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) wisely shifts MacArthur--played with near-perfect pomposity by Tommy Lee Jones--to a supporting role, and instead pans his lens toward the story of Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers, played by Matthew Fox--most known for his role on the TV show Lost--who cashes in his small-screen cred for a big-screen breakout performance.
Fellers was tasked by MacArthur in 1945 with a fool's errand, to determine whether Japanese Emperor Hirohito should be executed for war crimes or saved to help push back a feared Chinese invasion. But Fellers has skin--and heart--in the game: a heartbreaking pursuit of his first love, a Japanese girl who attended his American university.
"Nothing here, as you Americans say, is black and white," a former Japanese general, and now prisoner-of-war, warns Fellers.
Indeed, Fellers peels away endless blankets of gray in his quest through a nation crushed by atomic weapons.
Emperor ignites best during Fox's scenes with Jones. The Oscar-winner fills the screen with MacArthur's swagger but Fellers repeatedly reins him back in, cautioning that Western-style justice and punishment of Hirohito--a god-as-man figurehead among the Japanese--could lead to social unrest at best and mass suicides at worst.
"This self-proclaimed son of heaven has been placed on a protected list," says Fellers. "That is, until we know what to do with him."
While Emperor's 98 minutes are taut, the screenplay is exact and never rushed.
But I must admit to some befuddlement with the film's studio--Roadside Attractions--and its handling of the film, an American/New Zealand production. When I first saw the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012, I was certain that it would be a candidate in the recently wrapped award season. Yet, here it is being silently slid into an early March release date. Don't let that fool you. Emperor is a crowning achievement.