03/08/2013 08:44 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

Movie Review: Emperor

The history books won't tell you the story of U.S. Marine Gen. Bonner Fellers that you see in Emperor. Which is just as well because Fellers' real story is more chaotic and less overtly heroic than the character portrayed by Matthew Fox in Peter Webber's new film.

Fox is Fellers, who serves under Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) as America assumes control of Japan at the end of World War II. MacArthur's task -- which he assigns to Fellers -- is to determine whether Emperor Hirohito ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and, if so, to decide whether he should be executed for doing so.

It's not a simple decision. Japan is all but destroyed -- but the people still venerate the Emperor as a god on Earth. To execute him would be to invite a revolt of the Japanese -- sort of like what happened when the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army after toppling Saddam Hussein and an insurgency popped up.

But Fellers faces endless Japanese protocol, something he grasps because he had been in love with a Japanese exchange student before the war -- had even visited her in increasingly militant Japan in 1940. So he understands the levels of courtesy and the in-built reticence at losing face -- even in the face of the grand humiliation of surrender.

Writers Vera Blasi and David Klass bounce Fellers back and forth in time, triggering flashbacks as he combines his search for an answer about the Emperor (he only has 10 days to do his investigation) with his own personal search for Aya (Eriko Hatsune), the girl he loved. The script touches on racism and the kind of bigoted nationalism that led Japan to war in the first place.

Webber strives for a Chinatown-like noir in Fellers' investigation into who said what prior to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that put the U.S. into World War II. Or was it Prime Minister Tojo, working behind the Emperor's back?

The film succeeds in revealing some of the levels of deception and indirectness, as Fellers essentially keeps hearing, "Well, he might have said that, but it might have meant this." The Emperor apparently talks in riddles, which leaves Fellers with unsatisfying answers for MacArthur.

Emperor never dawdles but also rarely digs deep. It's set in the foreign-intrigue spycraft world, historical division, seasoned with debates over the consequences of choosing what is politically expedient over what is strategically and even morally correct. But that very interesting line of attack is consistently undercut by the Romeo-Juliet love-affair flashbacks between Fellers and Aya.

Fox plays Fellers as tough but compassionate, someone haunted both by the war he's seen and the love he's lost. Jones, meanwhile, struts and puffs as MacArthur, speaking in pronouncements, the way any new emperor usually does.

Emperor doesn't reimagine history so much as use it as the jumping-off point for a fictional historical romance set against the backdrop of impending war, when everything seems more vital and in-the-moment. Except for this sometimes plodding film.

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