Review of Emperor (2012) – If only Aaron Sorkin had written it

Plot Synopsis (from IMBD)

As the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Gen. Fellers is tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya, an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.

Review

Emperor falls into an odd category for a film that is ostensibly based on true events. The more you think about it the less the narrative fits together.

Emperor starts off very strongly before the script loses its way. The premise of Emperor is so fecund with socio-political and historical nuance that setting the scene could be near impossible.

Emperor however, succeeds in doing the near impossible by setting the scene very quickly using historical footage of the dropping of the atomic bombs and maybe a two paragraphs of narration from Matthew Fox.

It then brings in some tension into events with a strong opening scene. Supreme Commander Douglas McArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and a small group of soldiers are flying into Japan to begin the US led occupation. Are they flying into a trap though?

McArthur summons his advisors around him including General Fellers (Matthew Fox’s character) and on Fellers advice decides that they are going to land despite the risk. The scene is dramatic and tense.

It is at this point also that the writers made their last good decision by placing a clock of 10 days on the film. This ticking clock then provides all the impetus to the narrative as the writers abandon the premise of the story for Hollywood cliche.

Trust the audience

Where does Emperor go wrong then? Take your choice it is either that they  didn’t trust the audience and/or understand the material themselves.

You see the premise of the film is both fascinating and complex.  How much was the Emperor responsible for execution of WW2. Theoretically, he was a living God. In practice his advisers ran the show as the Emperor was lived a cloistered existence. But were they still following his orders?

The political machinations that brought such a system about and how it played into the events of Pearl Harbour, the invasion of Manchuria, the rape of Nanking, the treatment of POWs. All this could be fascinating but the film never goes into these details in anything approaching the detail it deserves.

Instead of setting up and examining the key players of pre-war and war Japan the film creates a dull love story and makes General Fellers a traitor in a way that insults the memory of the man.

The love story

In Hollywood nobody could be interested in something because, they find it interesting. No General Fellers (who in real life was about twenty years older and twenty years happily married) only finds himself interested in Japan because, he wants to get into the pants of a hot Japanese woman. Then when she leaves American to return home Fellers chases after her because, love.

This plot line might be forgiven however did the film not decide that the love was so deep as to make General Fellers commit treason. You see it is casually mentioned that in an attempt to protect his love Matthew Fox’s character directed bombing raids away from the area of Japan he believed she was in.

That folks is treason. If that had actually happened (an internet search of the real Fellers finds no evidence that it did) then Fellers would have been responsible for the deaths Allied soldiers.

This a big deal. It’s court-martial and execution stuff. When McArthur finds out about this though he decides to simply ignore it. Why? I can only presume that the tragedy of their unfulfilled love was just too beautiful to him.

Conclusion

I don’t expect historical accuracy from Hollywood. These are the people after all that made the rescue of the enigma codebooks a US operation rather than the British operation it actually was.

However, the problem with Emperor is that they make so many changes that I have no idea if anything they actually depict is true. At least when someone watches U571 you get the basics of the narrative i.e. sinking submarine, codebooks, mission to get codebooks.

In the brief bit about the actual Emperor that is covered the story gives some fascinating details such as an attempted army coup on the throne just before the Japanese surrender is announced. Is it true though? Who knows?

Emporer  is a case of great premise, strong initial setup, weak execution. If only Aaron Sorkin had written it then we could have had a classic because, this story deserves to be told and Sorkin is probably the only writer who could have come to grips with such a huge topic.

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Do I trust Damon Lindelof enough to watch The Leftovers? – Review Ep 1 & 2

Synopsis (from IMBD)

The Leftovers “revolves around mysterious disappearances, world-wide, and specifically follows a group of people who are left behind in the suburban community of Mapleton. They must begin to rebuild their lives after the loss of more than 100 people”.

Review

When I first saw the trailer for ‘The Leftovers’ I adamant that I was not going to be watching it.  Sitting at my laptop when it came on however, it did catch my attention and in many ways this was my greatest fear. My fear was that The Leftovers would draw me like the Sirens of ancient Greek myth only to leave me marooned on the rocks of narrative disappointment.

You see I didn’t look at the premise of ‘The Leftovers’ and think that looks uninteresting or that’s stupid. As a lover of fantasy and science fiction I am fully on board with high concept premises. On seeing ‘The Leftovers’ my first thought that is an interesting idea but not for a TV series. In particular not for an American TV series

Why you ask?

Whilst the premise of The Leftovers is interesting and the show contains actors I like (Peep Show alum Paterson Joseph in particular is well cast). However, it also has a high potential to combine two tropes I hate.  Even worse it’s two tropes that can feed off each other.

Trope number one – Flashbacks

It’s an American TV drama staple. Lets show why character A is acting in such a way by flashing back five years and spending half the episode in a tedious narrative cul de sac. The Leftovers which is about a mystical event that disappears two percent of the population is ripe for tedious flashbacks.

Person number one wasn’t raptured but their wife was. Que flashback to before the rapturing as the writer drags us through a flashback of an affair or abusive relationship e.t.c.

Trope number 2. Religion/the meaning of life

People have been raptured off the planet what is the metaphysical significance of this? The perfect excuse for vague dialogue which pretends to offer some philosophical insight but in reality does nothing of the sort.

The Leftovers already had some hurdles to overcome in my eyes and then I found out that Lindelof was writing the series. Whilst I have enjoyed some of his work like Prometheus you would struggle to argue that he isn’t the prime propagator of tropes 1 and 2.  This then leads into the question

Do I trust Damon Lindelof enough to watch The Leftovers?

As I said though episode one did raise enough questions to draw me in. I am interested in the guy that is shooting dogs and Christopher Eccelston’s character and the cult of silent people dressed in white.

But this of course just brings me back to Lindelof. No doubt the guy can write interesting premises but they never lead anywhere satisfying.

So what I am coming up against is an odd theoretical issue. As a reader or viewer of stories I tend to without thinking trust that the author is going to fulfill his promises. After all successful writers do this but I’ve been burnt by Lindelof before.

I’m in an odd position. I enjoyed, the first episode in particular, enough that I’m tempted to give The Leftovers. However, I’m reticent to get back onto the merry-go-round with this Lindelof. The Leftovers is on a very short leash.

Book Review : Running with the Firm by James Bannon

runningwiththefirmPlot Synopsis

‘Of course I’m a f**king hooligan, you pr**k. I am a hooligan…there I’ve said it…I’m a hooligan. And, do you know why? Because that’s my f**king job. – James Bannon’s response when asked by a fellow undercover officer if he was getting too involved in the violence.

Running with the firm tells the true story of police officer James Bannon detailing his two years undercover with the football hooligans that made up the notorious Milwall firm.

Review

Some set ups for stories I find inherently interesting no matter what guise they appear in. Cops going undercover into a dangerous situation where one wrong move could result in their heads being kicked in or worse is one of those stories. Even better though in “Running With The Firm” the story is true.

“Running With The Firm” is a really enjoyable read.  James Bannon gives a warts and all, 3D portrait of himself and his work. Non-football/sports fans may not think this book is for them but I would argue strongly that this isn’t the case.

Football is really just the backdrop of Running With The Firm as the book is much more of a character study of someone under extreme pressure.

I don’t know if it is correct to call the main character in a non-fiction book the protagonist but what the hell. The protagonist in Running With The Firm is genuinely interesting.

Bannon admits that as he gets more and more involved in the life of a hooligan that there are things he enjoys about it. He talks frankly about the surges of adrenaline he gets in the moments before and during the violence. He talks frankly about liking some of the hooligans.

Bannon is open about how at times he pushes the envelope about what an undercover police officer should do. To gain the Firm’s trust he puts himself at the front of acts of violence and he is honest enough to point out the concerns some of his fellow undercovers have about this.

The book is about more than violence though. The most enthralling part of the book is the frayed relationship he enjoys with his girlfriend and the flirtation he has with the barmaid at a Milwall hooligan pub. To add some extra complications said barmaid is the sister of one of the leaders of the firm.

By laying out the temptations that assaulted him and explaining just how he made the decisions he did Bannon is able to give the reader some idea of what it must be like to serve as an undercover police officer.

As a point of comparison I read Donnie Brasko a few years ago and I didn’t come away with such a felling of what it must be like to be an undercover officer. Scared of what you are doing but also addicted to to the thrill of the danger

Political Ramifications

Perhaps the aspect that would make the book most interesting to non-football fans though is the political/moral issues that the book throws up.

Firstly, there is the issue of romantic entanglement with people whilst you are undercover. Bannon just about manages to avoid succumming to temptation. Recent revelations however have shown that undercover officers in far less dangerous positions that Bannon didn’t exercise such discretion. Bannon doesn’t pass judgement on this himself writing that such as choice must be up to the individual officers but does say that in his opinion ‘fraternisation’ should only occur when it presented the only viable way of gaining the target’s trust.

This is an interesting point though. Would it have been right for Bannon to get involved with a woman if he knew that doing so would get him in a position to get lots of intelligence on the Firm’s activities? I really don’t know but that of course is what makes Running With The Firm an interesting read. It is a book of grey rather than black and white. 

Secondly, Bannon is very honest in his criticisms of the police. He talks about travelling to a Milwall away game against Middlesbourgh (I could be wrong about the team) and how the home fans spent the entire afternoon hurling fistfuls of concrete at the Milwall fans. Meanwhile the cops did nothing. To make matters worse the police essentially join in with the home fans by wading into the crowd to beat and arrest Milwall fans for little to no reason. He is also very clear about how just generally incompetent the police forces as an organisation often were and likely are.

In light of the ongoing revelations about Hillsborough and other scandals this is particularly interesting.

The politics of it all brings me to my only reservation with the book. Since Running With The Firm is a personal memoir with a tight POV focus we never really get a sense of the wider politics of the football hooliganism. There is little sense of the larger picture of what was going on.

If, a bit like a Michael Lewis book, “Running With The Firm” had done this wider picture stuff as well as the personal stuff I would have no hesitation in declaring Running With The Firm to be a classic. As it is though it is just a very good book. I’d recommend it.