That a movie based largely on the personality of larger-than-life Douglas MacArthur, who is played by legendary screen presence Tommy Lee Jones, could be so small is like finding out that the big man on campus you’ve been eyeing is, underneath it all, built a bit more along the Mr. Peepers model. Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, is such an experience. World War II is over and the Supreme Commander is charged by President Harry Truman to de-militarize Japan and whip it into shape as a leading democratic ally. Oh, and while he’s at it, he needs to determine whether or not to hold the Emperor Hirohito for war crimes.
That job he delegates to General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), an expert on Japanese mores and culture who has a knack for shocking the Japanese with his facility for their language. This gets old pretty quickly, and doesn’t explain why he usually resorts to the services of a translator, except, of course, it gives Fellers somebody to talk to when he’s not staring at pictures of potential war criminals. Emperor plays like a particularly slow episode of a police procedural, interspersed with flashbacks to Fellers’ college romance with a Japanese woman (Eriko Hatsune) who may not have survived the war.
The movie does a fair job of nailing MacArthur’s notorious vanity, not to mention his canny sense of public relations. Too often, the Supreme Commander is an afterthought to Fellers’ struggle to determine who is and is not a war criminal, which in itself becomes a pedantic series of simplistic monologues decrying American imperialism. Fox tries admirably to give some life to the proceedings, but even small-screen charm and good looks can’t do the impossible.