Emperor ***½ (PG-13) After last year’s Oscar-winning Argo, and its close competitor Zero Dark Thirty, this fact-based military drama gives us another fine entry in the genre. Matthew Fox stars as one of General Douglas MacArthur’s (Tommy Lee Jones) top aides in our occupation of Japan after World War II.
One major job was rounding up 30 top military, political and intelligence leaders to try them for war crimes. The biggest question was whether to prosecute Emperor Hirohito, raising a slew of legal, moral, political, cultural and practical with national and global implications. Fox’s character, General Bonner Fellers, was given 10 days to do the investigation of Hirohito’s culpability, with heavy pressure from home and abroad to hold him accountable for all the suffering his forces inflicted on a substantial portion of the world.
Fellers got the duty because he was more informed about Japanese culture than most. That included a pre-war romance that ended abruptly due to impending hostilities despite the feelings of the lovers. Even so, Japan’s structure and ethos made his fact-finding a journey through a maze of glimpses at a complex reality, with our idea of truth remaining just out of reach.
This film offers none of the big-budget production or high-octane suspense of the two films mentioned above. There is sobering depiction of the destruction Japan suffered for its aggression. But the real takeaway in terms of what’s to be learned of relevance for today and beyond is the tremendous value of leaders - even victors holding all the cards - resisting public sentiments like thirst for a broad swath of potentially indiscriminate revenge, and making decisions grounded not only in fact, but in deep understanding of culture and context. That kind of reasoned conduct of national and foreign affairs has been in short supply for decades, and we’re paying dearly for it in many ways. These guys got it right, and we can only hope some of today’s officers and officials will get the message. (3/8/13)