Star Wars: Rogue One – Attack of the Moral Ambiguity
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a much more nuanced political ambiguity and morality than this galaxy has ever seen.
This article has Rogue One: A Star Wars Story spoilers in it. Be warned.
Long before it was called “A New Hope,” the original crawl for Star Wars fired a refreshingly grandiose salvo towards its 1977 audiences. Forget your everyday concerns, and whatever dreary realities you might be facing. For here is a movie wherein “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”
Immediately, we had selfless war heroes fighting the good fight, and an evil, all-powerful existential threat that by its very nature conjured up images of goose-stepping boogeymen from the target audience’s generation of parents. Here, at last, was a good war where the battle lines were as comprehensibly separate as Princess Leia and Darth Vader’s contrasting wardrobes during the picture’s first seven minutes.
Yet, nearly 40 years (and one substantial paycheck from the House of Mouse) later, we have finally seen the shape and cost of that “first victory,” and less akin to Leia’s snow white cloak, the visage of the scrappy Rebel Alliance matches the grays favored by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen)… a literal goose-stepping Imperial officer who has the shiny black jackboots to prove it too. This is the far murkier galaxy that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story throws us into, and it fittingly reflects the four decades of anxiety that separates the two movies.
To be clear, the original Star Wars did not come out in a simpler time, how ever much fans might like to remember it as such. In 1977, cynicism and anger was as ingratiated in the American culture that surrounded George Lucas as the disco music that drowned out his AM radio. It had been less than four years since The Washington Post shined a blinding light on the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal cover-up. By the time America had regained its vision, a U.S. president had resigned and needed to be pardoned by his successor in order to escape prosecution. Instantly, distrust in American institutions became permanently baked into the national psyche. This nightmare also occurred concurrently with the slow and steady drip, drip, drip of wasted American life from our laborious exit out of the Vietnam War, which didn’t fully conclude until ’75.
Coupled with the political assassinations of the previous decade, hyperinflation occurring in the present, and the unexpected Iran Crisis just around the corner, Star Wars was not a product of a happier age; it was an antidote to a myriad of miseries. Lucas has made no qualms that his space opera was an eager return to the serials and movies of his youth, and not just of the science fiction variety either. Like nearly every U.S. kid of his generation, he was reared on the movies and adventure stories of World War II, which reinforced the idea of the “Just War” and the “Good Fight.”
For surely if there was ever a justified conflict, it was against the fascists of the early 20th century responsible for the holocaust and lighting the globe on fire, from Europe all the way to the South Pacific. And the American films that remembered those own dark days likewise reached to contextualize it in the most black and white manner possible.
Recalling his own childhood, Lucas once said, “I loved the war. It was a big deal when I was growing up. It was on all the coffee tables in the form of books, and on TV with things like Victory at Sea. I was inundated by these war things.” Hence when he decided to make a commercial adventure story that recaptured the innocence of that youth—supposedly because Francis Ford Coppola dared him to do it—it was this self-image of good vs. evil that Lucas intended to rekindle in audiences beaten down by the weariness of the present, and films as cynical as Network (1976) or Coppola’s own The Conversation (1974).
“[Star Wars] is the more old-fashioned version of good and evil,” Lucas explained. “The version that those of us who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s had when there was a strong sense of good and evil because of World War II.”
Thus enter the faceless hive-like villains of the saga, Stormtroopers who were somehow more all-white than the Third Reich’s supposed Aryan race, and named after a literal branch of “shock troops” utilized by the German army, albeit during World War I. Lucas also included in his many visual and storytelling appropriations in Star Wars a straight up remake of WWII movie dogfights, including shots lifted directly from The Dam Busters (1955) for the climax of his space opera, as chronicled in this video below.
However, Rogue One: Star Wars Story is opening in a very different cultural landscape from the 1977 film that started it all. In fact, it’s been longer since that movie’s release than it was between Lucas writing a script and the end of the Second World War. As such, new storytellers with new perspectives are taking a very different look at what was once simply good vs. evil.
Consider the driving motivation for the entire first two acts of Rogue One. After the prologue, the film is propelled by Rebel Alliance leaders charging Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor with the task of hunting down and assassinating Galen Erso. The beginning “rescue” of Jones’ adult Jyn was also hardly a moment of mercy; it was a means-to-an-end, which in this case meant having her unwittingly lead them closer to killing her father in an act of political subterfuge.
The entire second act builds to a wonderfully tense set-piece where Cassian has deceptively set out to murder Galen with a sniper rifle while a desperate Jyn attempts to save the life of her father from the laser blast, unconcerned with being labeled as a traitor. This is further muddied by the fact that Galen is not actually a villain at all, but a man who was forced against his will to aid in the construction of the Death Star. Nevertheless, he is also the singular person responsible for its infamously amusing design flaw, which, if targeted, would rob the Empire of its planetary equivalent to nuclear weapons.
This cloak-and-dagger game of spies and lies is less reminiscent of our cultural understanding of World War II as it is of the Cold War. Often, Western intelligence and influence has walked hand-in-hand with covert and unsavory actions executed in the name of national defense and interest, whether it be funneling Iranian money to what were arguably terrorist groups in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration, so as to oppose that nation’s socialist government, or even earlier, aiding a coup d’état in the aforementioned Iran in 1953, which began a stack of dominos that collapsed two years after the original Star Wars was released with the Iranian Revolution, and the subsequent hostage-taking of U.S. citizens from our embassy in Tehran.
I cannot guess the politics or full intentions of director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, however they are clearly more informed by their own childhoods where the international realpolitik of the time was as blurred as the absolutism that came with fighting Nazis and Imperial Japan was clean-cut (especially in Hollywood movies that skirted any morally-challenging questions like firebombing or nuclear blast fallout).
So the thinly-veiled Nazis of the piece remain a shiny-booted Empire with dreams of total domination through violence, including in the indiscriminate slaughter of all residents inside the city of Jedha… but the Rebels are not exactly free of collateral damage, not when their bombs accidentally kill Galen, who otherwise could have helped the Rebels discover the Death Star’s weakness without sacrificing so many lives on Scarif.
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Similarly, the Rebel Alliance is not a unified front of allied authority, but a splintered and tenuous confederation of fraying opinions. When Jyn gives her third act speech about how rebellions are built on hope, she is met with derision and indecision by her leaders. Some would rather accept Imperial rule if a Death Star exists than attempt to challenge the might of a planet-killer. While the Alliance’s council is eager to act on faulty intelligence, such as ordering the assassination of Galen without fully understanding his position (or perhaps choosing to invade a country deemed to supposedly have weapons of mass destruction), they are just as ineffectual during true moments of critical decision points.
To be fair, George Lucas attempted to infuse this kind of political theater and weariness of institutions in his Star Wars prequels. But the Galactic Senate in The Phantom Menace was almost wholly a force for good, and it only slipped because, for some inexplicable reason, the planet of Naboo chooses to exclusively elect teenagers as their rulers, and one got rolled by an actual politician who intended to subvert the institutions’ democratic process. But even then, the Senate didn’t collapse until it ceded power to a fascist in their midst.
By contrast, the Rebel Alliance leadership is inherently flawed by its own inaction in Rogue One, and is only corrected after Jyn Erso takes matters into her own hands. The film does not reflect a childhood nostalgia for a pop culture that praised good vs. evil morality, but one that was browbeaten by a reality that was anything but moral. As such, the film adds the first real bit of gray to a universe that was never intended to have it. Not that this is a problem. If anything, it adds the exact kind of world-building and complexity necessary to infinitely expand a greater shared universe.
It also never forgets its roots, ending on a spectacular crackerjack action sequence that includes a Wild Bunch finish, Ocean’s 11 levels of intercut heist machinations, and even war scenes on a beach that owe more than a hint of debt to the way Steven Spielberg framed the battles in Saving Private Ryan. From D-Day’s sandy shores, to attempting to grenade Imperial tanks from the vantage of a shaky cam angle, the finale amounts to more than a nod.
After all, it’s still Star Wars, a project borne from Lucas’ own boundless imagination, and the Empire are still basically white supremacist Nazis. Like another franchise Lucas had a major hand in, Rogue One remembers that, for whatever the good guys’ faults, we hate these guys.
Overcoming them, and our own more modern weaknesses, makes the run-and-gun ending that much more satisfying.