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Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck played Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the big screen, but they never touched the growling impact that Tommy Lee Jones brings to the role in “Emperor.”

This well-made but patchy historical drama, which begins with the bombing of Hiroshima and deals with two American generals trying to win the peace with Emperor Hirohito, is in some ways a made-to-order vehicle for Jones’ grit and wit.

When Jones/MacArthur promises, in the opening scenes, to bring an American swagger to the military occupation of Japan, you see the man who can get the job done and the defiant soldier who will eventually be fired. His trickiest task: dealing with a much-loved emperor who could be classified as a war criminal.

One significant problem: This isn’t really MacArthur’s story. Indeed, he comes off as a supporting player in a screenplay that emphasizes Gen. Bonner Fellers (a sometimes hard-to-read Matthew Fox) and the Japanese girlfriend (Eriko Hatsune) he left behind when World War II intervened.

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The director, Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”), tries to pull the stories together, and he has some success in demonstrating the clash of cultures the couple experienced. But the flashbacks to Japan in 1932 and 1940 are awkwardly inserted, and it doesn’t help that the East-West love story echoes “Madame Butterfly.”

Aside from Jones’ gutsy performance, what lifts the film above mediocrity is its serious engagement with the generals’ dilemma. How do you round up and punish military royalty who were your deadly enemies a few weeks ago? And if you succeed in doing so, what moral and political consequences do you invite?

John Hartl:

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