There’s so much more to life than movies with car crashes and explosions. Which is why I love a good historical drama. You learn something while you’re being entertained. The King’s Speech (2010), about WWII’s King George VI, was a perfect movie and won four Academy Awards. In Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), we watched another version of the same king on his trip to see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (brilliantly played by Bill Murray) to beg America’s help to fight Nazis. A Royal Affair (2012) showed how Denmark embraced the Enlightenment more than any other country at the time (1770s) — and then regressed almost overnight.

One of the most memorable historical movies of my life was Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), about the trial of four low-level Nazi war criminals. I kept thinking about it on the way to see Emperor, a new film that looks at how General Douglas MacArthur makes decisions in occupied Japan that affect the history of the entire world.

Two atomic bombs were dropped. Emperor Hirohito (Takatoro Kataoka) has ordered his troops to stop fighting and Japan has surrendered. The country is devastated. People are sick and dying. But many Americans remember the horrors the Japanese inflicted on other countries and their enemies and prisoners — and want revenge. General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, is literally the ruler of the defeated country. He must decide if the emperor should be tried as a war criminal and hanged — or find evidence to absolve him.

The Japanese emperor is no ordinary national leader. He is a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and he himself a living god. He lives a hermetic life, in which he rarely has human contact. Executing the Emperor would be like executing Jesus Christ. The country could never recover from the shock and grief.

MacArthur’s assignment is to rebuild Japan, not add to its destruction. So he wants someone to present solid evidence why Hirohito should not be charged with war crimes. As played, with uncanny veracity, by Tommy Lee Jones, this film’s MacArthur is a man who can charm as well as swagger, a leader who takes the long view even if it makes him unpopular. Yes, it’s a movie, but you can’t help but say to yourself, “Now, that man was a leader.”

A younger general, Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) is an expert on Japan and the psychology of the Japanese soldier. MacArthur gives him ten days in which to investigate the emperor’s wartime behavior and write a convincing report on his guilt or innocence. Fellers must interview reluctant Japanese military and government leaders, some of whom have already been condemned to death. “We did our duty,” one former Japanese general admits, “but we lost our humanity.”

During his official investigation he is also looking for a young Japanese woman, Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) who enchanted him when she was a foreign student in the US. The haunting memories of their love affair add to Fellers’ emotional turmoil and make the political situation achingly personal.

It’s good to see director Peter Webber back at the helm. He’s been gone too long since the lovely Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003). Emperor, shot in Tokyo (the first time the imperial palace was photographed) and New Zealand by Oscar-nominated Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, 1993) is so stunning, that even its depiction of destruction is beautiful.

Though a tad slow at times, Emperor is a riveting drama, covering issues of monumental importance and raising questions about the morality of war that we’ve still not been able to answer. Emotions could run very high with this film, so plan for discussion time afterward. If you miss Emperor on the big screen, definitely see it on DVD.

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