by Brad Nelson 5/26/14
Tommy Lee Jones is completely unsuitable as General Douglas MacArthur. Matthew Fox is a stiff as an actor. Plywood might have emoted better. Add to that some pro-Japanese revisionism and you have the makings of an atrocious movie. So why did I like it?
The fine line this movie walks is trying to downplay American gung-ho-ism without lapsing into historical revisionism. Honestly, I don’t know the fine-toothed details of this era, so I take it as more of a fictionalized drama than a biography, perhaps propelling me to do some further reading on the subject.
There certainly reigned somewhat of a “let bygones be bygones” ethos after the war. We did not punish Japan. We (partly with an eye to having a base to help head off Soviet Communist expansion) helped to rebuild her. But you’d never get the sense from this movie that we also helped to rebuild her because we were not conquerors but liberators. The bias is subtle.
The attitude of getting to know our enemy and putting the past behind was certainly a real historical element. And I think the film shows this aspect fairly well. That it slips in a little too much pro-Japanese bias is perhaps a matter of taste. Some of this is irrelevant because this movie is a broad sketch of the time, at best, acting as a mere backdrop for what is inevitably a love story.
Matthew Fox plays General Bonner Fellers who is tasked by MacArthur to determine the guilt or innocence of Emperor Hirohito during the very first days of the Allied occupation of Japan. And he has only ten days to do so. As you might suppose, the Japanese city of Tokyo is in a shambles. Records (and the appropriate officials) are difficult to find.
The movie casts this as somewhat a conundrum for MacArthur, who has presidential ambitions. The folks back home (including the president) want Hirohito tried as a war criminal. With this popular (and probably justified) sentiment raging, MacArthur is apparently looking for someone else to find a reason to let Hirohito off the hook. He knows that if they hang Hirohito, there might well be a huge uprising of the Japanese people which would make his job of rebuilding Japan near impossible. So he picks this Japanophile in the guise of General Plywood (I mean “Fellers”) who had spent some pre-war time in Japanese getting to know its people and customs — and falling in love with a beautiful Japanese girl in the process.
It must be said, part of gauging MacArthur’s motivation is an act of reading between the lines. You barely get inside his head. This is by no means a remake of the generally excellent portrait of him in 1977’s MacArthur starring Gregory Peck. This movie isn’t about him. It’s about Fellers and the girl he lost once to the mad militaristic fever that swept over Japan and that forced him to leave the country. And while he searches for evidence to either convict or acquit Hirohito, he also searches for his lost love in a city that has lost over a hundred thousand citizens to Allied bombing. The prospects don’t look promising.
You relive and review this relationship in a series of flashbacks. And although Matthew Fox is no great actor in this movie, he does bring a certain believable American good-guy plainness to the role of star-crossed lover. And although he is no Ben Affleck (thank the movie gods — the trauma of Pearl Harbor still haunts me), neither is he, say, Jimmy Stewart.
As we know (perhaps unless you’ve attended a public school in the last forty years), Hirohito was not tried for war crimes. He eventually renounced his status as a god and lived on until 1989. He was painted (rightly or wrongly….to some extent, as the movie says, much is apparently unknowable) as the man instrumental in the peaceful surrender of Japan, even if he may well have been along for the ride in the heady days of military expansion.
Having some background knowledge on this affair helped to fill in blanks in the movie. For instance, MacArthur famously had his picture taken with the Emperor which does much to raise his own stature. The tall, commanding MacArthur next to the somewhat feeble, diminutive Emperor is a powerful indication of just who is in charge. The movie has very little internal commentary about these things although you do get at least a visual sense of it.
Still, despite some of the flaws, I do think this works as a love story set in the ruins of Tokyo during a very interesting time. It is true that the Japanese are quite humanized in this film, and that is not a bad thing. You get to meet, for instance, Fellers’ would-be father-in-law both before and after the ravages of the war. He helped Fellers escape the country pre-war and also later was an officer in the army, doing all the incredibly cruel and viscous things typical of that army. And this father-in-law has a very good scene where he explains the internal workings of the Japanese people to Fellers.
So you have this combination of a film that is smart in the fined-grained details and a little lacking in the overall (especially with Tommy Lee Jones as an ineffective choice for MacArthur). But it all seems to work. You are compelled to want to know how this all ends. And whatever other flaws this film has, it does tell a good story. • (1249 views)