Emperor in August / Emperor

These two movies, one from Japan, one from the US, tell overlapping stories about the end of WWII, so I thought I’d review them together.  Both are available on Netflix, and both are well worth your time if you’re interested in WWII.

Emperor in August

The story begins on August 9, 1945, after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.  The Japanese Cabinet meets to decide whether to surrender to the Americans.  Unbelievably, they deadlock, and Emperor Hirohito casts the deciding vote to end the war.  In order to make the decision more palatable to the public, he decides to record a message telling the Japanese to lay down their arms.

A group of military officers, unsatisfied with this turn of events, tries to engineer a coup.  Well aware of the propaganda effect of the Emperor’s speech, they try to find it before it can be broadcast. That effort, and the coup, fail.

Even though you know the ending, the film is surprisingly gripping.  The failure of the coup was a near thing, ultimately resting on the decision of one senior military officer with no reputation for moderation. The leaders of Japan’s government knew the war was lost, but wanted to avoid the fate of Germany, which had surrendered a few months earlier and had already been carved into bits.  Should they trust the Americans, who said they would preserve the position of the Emperor?  The struggles of Japanese diplomats trying to decide whether the Emperor’s power being “subject to” that of the American military authority meant “subordinate to” or “dependent on” will be familiar to any student of a foreign language.

The movie has some interesting period detail.  The Emperor’s radio broadcast was pre-recorded but, since tape decks hadn’t yet been invented, they actually had to cut a record.  The efforts of the imperial household staff and the employees of the national radio station to safeguard the record until it could be broadcast are unexpectedly poignant.

This film requires close attention, since some of the characters are referred to by both by their names and their titles. And, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a fascinating look at a little-known aspect of the end of the war.

Emperor

This American film, although it was made independently before the Japanese one, kind of picks up where the other film leaves off.  MacArthur arrives in Japan and is told by Truman he has to make a decision about whether to arrest Hirohito.  Maybe the Japanese shouldn’t have trusted us after all.  MacArthur asks a member of his staff, Bonnar Fellers, who has some experience with Japan, to see what he kind find out about Hirohito’s responsibility for starting the war.  Fellers isn’t able to get much resolution on that question, but he does find out about the deadlocked Cabinet meeting and the coup attempt.

Fellers ultimately concludes that, whatever Hirohito’s role beginning the war (neither film takes a position on this), he had a decisive role in ending it. And he could play a vital role in the successful rebuilding of the country.  MacArthur accepted Fellers’ conclusions (although there is some suggestion that he had already made up his mind in that direction).

Matthew Fox is somewhat tedious in the title role, although the rest of the mostly Japanese cast is pretty good.  Tommy Lee Jones gives an unexpectedly restrained performance as MacArthur.

We justly remember our rebuilding of Japan as one of America’s finest hours.  But this film reminds us that the way things worked out, given the amount of hostility in the US towards the Japanese at that point, was no sure thing.

One of the the other generals on MacArthur’s staff tried to discredit Fellers by pointing out that he had a Japanese girlfriend.  (Fellers did have such a female friend, although the nature of their relationship remains unclear.)  In the movie, Fellers supposedly changed targets to protect his friend, which as far as I can tell is a complete invention.    It’s almost as though the writers felt the modern American audience wouldn’t understand how the mere allegation of a relationship with a Japanese woman might have been enough, in 1945, to discredit someone.  That transition in the American perception of Japan, from horrible foe to respected friend, in a few short decades is a miracle of anti-racism — a victory we don’t celebrate enough.

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Bridge of Spies

The story of a negotiated exchange of a Russian spy for a captured US fighter pilot doesn’t sound like a promising topic for a movie, but this is an excellent film.  Spielberg at his best is an outstanding storyteller, and he’s found a good one here.

When Rudolf Abel was arrested for espionage in Brooklyn in 1957, the local Bar Association decided to assign him a lawyer (not a given, pre-Gideon) to demonstrate the moral superiority of The American Way.  They pick a local insurance defense lawyer, James Donovan, whose only criminal experience was at the Nuremberg trials.  Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous — the Bar wants the appearance of a defense, not a real one.  But Donovan doesn’t see it that way — he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  And doing so doesn’t make him very popular, with the public or his law firm.

He loses, of course.  But along the way, he convinces the judge to give Abel a long prison sentence instead of the death penalty.  What if, suggests Donovan, they capture one of out guys — wouldn’t we like to have one of theirs “on the shelf” to trade?

Four years later, Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spying over Russia, and the Russians do indeed seek a trade.  Donovan is tapped for the job of negotiating the exchange, on an “unofficial” basis.  Donovan decides to negotiate not just for Powers, but also for an American grad student, Frederick Pryor, who had recently been picked up by the East Germans.  The CIA is apopleptic — they don’t care about Pryor– but Donovan, a sort of genius negotiator, understands that his lack of official status actually gives him a lot of bargaining power.

The exchange on the bridge, shot on the actual bridge where the real-life exchange took place, is unexpectedly moving.

James Donovan is a stand-up guy, and nobody does stand-up guy better than Tom Hanks.  But the truly outstanding performance, in my mind, is that of Mark Rylance as Abel.  Most actors are larger-than-life individuals, and are at their best portraying larger-than-life characters.  But to be a successful spy like Abel, you have to be the kind of individual who totally blends into the scenery, whom nobody notices.  How Rylance accomplishes that feat I don’t know, but there are moments when he seems to totally disappear from the screen — even in courtroom scenes where you know he has to be there.  When he is part of a scene, of course, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay — their slice of wry is a good balance to Spielberg’s sometimes schmaltzy tendencies.  And the movie-makers are alert to the ways certain parts of this story resonate with modern concerns, without hitting you over the head with them.

Historical note 1:  The movie begins with the dread “inspired by true events” tagline, which sometimes means they’ve made a total FUBAR out of the facts.  Not here though — after a little research, it appears that the movie sticks pretty close to the facts, and most of the changes (like the circumstances of Pryor’s capture) are peripheral to the main story. But many of the movie’s most surprising facts, like the comically inept FBI search of Abel’s apartment, and the fact the Donovan later negotiated a prisoner exchange following the Bay of Pigs debacle, are absolutely true.

The historical inaccuracies, such as they are, tend to be those are of omission.  Donovan was at Nuremberg in part because of the 3 years he spent at the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII — he wasn’t a total newcomer to the spy business.  And the historically accurate hollowed-out nickels that the Russians used to transmit messages, shown at the beginning of the film, actually contributed to Abel’s capture.  One of Abel’s associates, less careful, accidentally used one of these hollow nickels to buy a newspaper, which led to his arrest; he ultimately ratted out Abel.

Historical note 2:  After Donovan wrote a book about the incident, in 1965, there was some thought about making it into a movie, with Gregory Peck (a previous generation’s stand-up guy) in the lead role.  The studios deemed it not commercially viable, however — Cold War tensions still ran too high.

Fun fact:  The rock band U2 was named after the high-altitude spy plane that figures in this movie.  Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, has a small part in this movie as Donovan’s daughter.

Star Wars — The Force Awakens

First the good news — this is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.  JJ Abrams understood what it was about the original films that made them most broadly appealing — characters you could root for, a story line that was easy to follow, and action sequences in unusual settings.  And robots.

On these metrics, the movie delivers.  Some beloved old characters return, and are joined by (mostly) appealing new ones.  It’s good to see Harrison Ford finding his inner Solo again, instead of playing HARRISON FORD MOVIE STAR.  The newer actors are good, too, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey — a feminist heroine who wears pants, and sometimes the pants).  There’s even a new robot, BB8, who successfully straddles the line between R2D2 dougthiness and terminal Ewok cutesiness.   And there are enough “Easter Egg” references to the prior movies to please everyone from the casual fan to the total geek.

Abrams made a good decision to use hand-built sets and models instead of relying on CG for many of the action sequences.  This helps to keep those action sequences in human scale — they never overwhelm the picture.

My reservations are less about the film that is actually on the screen — a marvelous piece of entertainment — than the better film that might have been.

The plot, for example,  is not so much straightforward as simplistic.   it’s a significant improvement over the hot mess story lines of the prequels, but for a true Star Wars fan, it’s overly predictable.

For me, though, what the film was really missing was — George Lucas.  Creating alien landscapes is more than just designing strange-looking buildings.  Lucas had a gift for inserting the small detail that turned an alien landscape into something both more comprehensible, and yet immeasurably stranger — the  double moons of Tatooine, the ice planet so cold people froze as they walked, the thousand-points-of-holographic-light Parliament of the old republic the underwater cities of Naboo, the diner with the roller-skating robot waiters, the hoverboards in the fire pit where Anakin and Obi-Wan have their fateful encounter.  There’s none of that Lucas genius in the new movie.

This movie can best be seen as high-quality fan fiction.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s already making boatloads of money, and filming on the second installment of the proposed trilogy will begin soon.  But, without Lucas’s mythic imagination,  it lacks the emotional resonance of the first two films.  I wonder if, had these films been first, we would still been talking about “Star Wars” all these many years later.

These quibbles aside, though, I highly recommend seeing the film.  But see it soon.  It’s that rare thing in the modern cinema landscape — a film which which really is better seen with a large and enthusiastic group.  If you wait too long, you might find all the surprises in the film are spoiled by the kids in the audience who have seen it 10 times already.

Weird Fact:  Luke Hamill is now a year older than Alec Guiness was when he appeared in the original Star Wars film.  Sigh.