Rogue Won: Re-visioning Republicanism in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
When Star Wars went rogue, America’s rogues cried foul.
Rogue One premiered at a time when turmoil has engulfed the great republic of the United States. The heated fallout of the 2016 Presidential election did not usher in a time of healing. Rather, both sides became bitterer, and, with it, came a great deal of soul searching. Many explanations arose about what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office meant. Commentaries about the backlash against racial and feminist progression, the urban/rural divide, globalists versus America Firsters, and the effectiveness of corporate branding and celebrity culture riddled the airwaves. Great uncertainty bounded, with a House divided, unrest in the Senate, and heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.
Not even a Star Wars story was immune. Some right-wingers immediately pounced on director Gareth Edwards’s film, calling Rogue One an attack on the new president. Critics had plenty of ammo, after screenwriter Chris Weitz stated, “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” No one less than Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself, tweeted, “Star Wars against hate” in solidarity with the film’s diverse cast. The closing line of the film, “hope,” just happened to be Barack Obama’s campaign slogan in 2008. Hope, it seems, begets a new hope.
But a greater force trumps hope.
Rogue One does have a surface message against fascism and racism. It shows an inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-species band of rebels resisting against a tyrannical dictatorship. In response, Trumpeters struck back, with boycotts to “dump” Star Wars. Given that Rogue One has grossed over $1 billion at the box office worldwide, it would seem that their mission failed.
But maybe it didn’t. Maybe the alt-right woke up and embraced the movie alongside all of America when they realized Rogue One was not really an attack on Trump, but a celebration of bucking the system. Of challenging the status quo. When Princess Leia’s ship — called a blockade runner — jumps to hyperspace in the final shot, maybe it purposefully presented a twisted Civil War message evoking daring Southern/sunbelt cavaliers (cue Rhett Butler) shattering the Yankee line. The Alliance’s first victory is a triumphant version of American individualism that succeeds by going rogue, whether it is against the Empire/Republic…or a democracy.
And democracy needs a good shake up now and then. Look no further than the catchphrases borne from the 2008 election, when the GOP devised its own version of hope, jazzing-up the conservative outlook, starring the “hottest candidate from the coolest state,” Sarah Palin, as John McCain’s running mate. Palin embodied the “every woman” persona of American individualism as she proudly distanced herself from being labeled an intellectual, built bridges to her constituency with folksy charm, and embraced the label of “maverick” and “rogue.” The title of her memoir, Going Rogue, equated rebellion with patriotism. When Palin jumped ship and traded her governorship of Alaska for a talk show queen, the move was hailed by one supporter, Pat Buchannan, as “genuine and authentic.” The subsequent Tea Party revolution further cemented “going rogue” as a catchphrase against the state. The press dubbed Palin “impetuous,” “defiant,” and eager to do “battle” to the evil empire of Russia and Barack Obama. Incidentally, the colorful terms are also Star Wars’s official description for Jyn Erso, the loner heroine in Rogue One.
Jyn Erso is not Luke Skywalker. Luke was a rebel, but one rooted in the system, first as an Imperial Academy wannabe, who then works his way up the ranks of the Alliance to commander, and finally becomes the last of the Jedi (true, he supposedly runs away when he’s bested by the whiny Kylo Ren, but he re-awakens when he trains the galaxy’s new ray of hope as an apprentice). Luke famously helped transform solo outsiders into team players, but not so Jyn Erso. A troublemaker, forger, thief, aggravating assaulter, resister of arrest, and all-around maverick, Jyn is hardly the wide-eyed innocent in the classic Skywalker mode. Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma introduced Jyn to moviegoers in the trailer: “On your own at the age of 15; reckless, aggressive, undisciplined.”
Jyn replies: “This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.”
Jyn’s rebelling for the sake of rebelling recalls the rhetoric of America’s political rogues, who thrive on being on the outside. But even those outside the establishment must have a larger goal — if only on paper. Palin, then Trump, tapped into a nostalgic ideal of “greatness” — which Trump identifies as the “late ’40s and ‘50s” as an idyllic period of industrial growth and expansion. The Leave It to Beaver lifestyle might look wonderful on TV, but is admittedly narrow: minorities, the LGBT community, and feminists probably do not think the casual discrimination of Jim Crow, housing covenants, anti-sodomy laws, and a disease that was not yet named was as great as the President makes it out to be. The President also has a fondness for earlier time periods, citing Jacksonian American, in which Andrew Jackson was a “man of the people,” which sounds cozy to his supporters. Never mind that Jackson once said, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes,” usually at the expense of “the humble members of society — the farmers, the mechanics, and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors for themselves.” No need for such niggling details, though; greatness, like the past, is in the eye of the beholder.
This rose-tinted nostalgia finds a home in the Rebel Alliance, embodied by their great leader Mon Mothma, who has her own idea of making the galaxy great again. As a founder of the Alliance, and still a Senator before the Emperor dissolves that body permanently, Mon Mothma draws upon her own political background as a guide to “restore” the Republic. However, her cherished, idealized vision of democracy is not as great as she remembers. The political system in Star Wars doesn’t work, mostly because the American people don’t really want it to. In a movie franchise that emphasizes wars, democracy — and all of the politicking, negotiations, compromise, and patience — is boring.
In the Star Wars Universe, quick decisive action is rewarded, not the long, drawn-out jawin’ sessions in the Senate. When the small planet of Naboo is threatened by the ultra-bland Trade Federation, Padmé and the Jedi spring into action while the Senate sputters around in their floating cubicles. Padmé retakes her planet, but this lesson of rashness and rebelling doesn’t rub off on her; in Episode 3, she, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa, and some other extras have a chat about how to curb Palpatine’s power, how they best prepare for the approaching hard times, how to protect the Constitution, blah, blah, blah. The scene was cut — probably because democracy is dull and also because they didn’t even come to an agreement. “Faster, more intense“ was George Lucas’s directorial signature when filming Star Wars in 1977; if that was what made Star Wars great, then speeding things up means yanking out the slow wheels of government — at least, enough to get a PG-13 rating. Roguish maverick Han Solo puts it best, telling the ex-Senator Leia as he saves them from becoming space-slug food: “No time to discuss this in committee!”
In Rogue One, Padmé is long gone, but Mon Mothma and Bail Organa are still kickin’, at least, until Organa goes back home just in time for the Death Star to show up. But in the movie, Mon Mothma’s ideals falter, showing why the Republic — and democracy — just doesn’t work. Jyn tries to rally them at the crucial moment, urging the assembled politicians to steal the Death Star plans. Jyn herself doesn’t really give a hoot about democracy; after all, the system failed her and she is more interested in redeeming her father’s name. But that doesn’t fly with this group; in true democratic form, dissent breaks out as the assemblage wavers in their commitment to do battle. One senator doesn’t think the Alliance is up to the challenge: If the Empire has the power to destroy a planet, what chance do they have?
Jyn takes a breath and launches into her big speech. She avoids talking about things like protecting Constitutional safeguards and liberty for all. Rather, she challenges the Alliance to tread on her: “What chance do we have? The question is what choice. Run, hide, plead for mercy, scatter your forces. You give way to an enemy this evil with this much power and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission. The time to fight is now.” She glances around the room, daring the Senators to show that they don’t wear mom-jeans under those flowing robes. When they don’t respond, she plays her ace card: “Rebellions are based on Hope.”
But Hope doesn’t work. The Rebels aren’t maverick enough to man up. Bail Organa bails out, giving meaningful looks at everyone else while Mon Mothma cracks. Surely she knows Death Star project leader Orson Krennic overlooked the battle station’s critical error and that the time for attack has come. But when everyone looks to her for decisive leadership, she shakes her head: “The odds are too great.” For a franchise based on solo heroes never wanting to hear the odds, Mothma defers to a rule by consensus, in true democratic fashion. The majority wins and Republic guidelines take precedence. Even if she allows Jyn to have her way and ignores the Council, help them she could, but would end up destroying all for which they have fought and suffered.
When Jyn doesn’t get her way, she does not become a Rebel. Instead, she goes rogue, not only from the Empire, but from the entire democratic process the Alliance stands for. The entire point of the Rebellion was to restore power to democracy. But Mon Mothma’s cherished memory of democracy, like Trump’s “greatness,” is an illusion. The franchise’s track record for democracy is certainly not encouraging: in The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala persuades the Senate to unanimously pass a vote of no confidence on Chancellor Valorum, paving the way for Palpatine. In Attack of the Clones, Senator Binks basically starts the Clone Wars single-handedly, while everyone tags along, cheering him on. In Revenge of the Sith, Senator Amidala somberly observes the Senate again rolling over, this time for Palpatine’s declaration of a Galactic Empire. Democracy dies with thunderous applause, muses Amidala, noting how everyone gives in to the Chancellor’s demand with nary a whisper. In her wise reflection, perhaps she forgot to contribute to the democratic process and voice an objection. Instead, she is simply kind and sad before giving up the ghost in her last few minutes of screen time. Mon Mothma’s vision of government and democracy relies on universal harmony among the Council. When faced with making a Big Decision, she can’t deliver because the system bogs her down.
By its very nature, democracy requires dissent, even if majority rules. But Jyn doesn’t agree with that. Instead, she turns rogue against the Rebels. Rogue One begets Rogue Two, and Jyn acquires a group of other outsiders like her. Fittingly, she finds an ally in Cassian Andor and other disgruntled Rebels, who, tell her that “they [the Council] were never going to believe you.” But they do, because they are the “true” rebels, the mavericks who have “done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion.” Unlike Mon Mothma, Cassian and his groupie have spied, sabotaged, and assassinated “for a cause that I believe in.” Cassian, who fought for this cause since he was six years old, lives and breathes for the Rebellion. But when it comes to operating within an established hierarchy, to following orders they disagree with, they draw the line.
Jyn defies the Alliance and breaks the rules. But, her going rogue is accepted and “legalized” when Mon Mothma sends the fleet to assist. Indeed, she even gives a small grin when she hears Jyn does what she wants anyway, as if she herself wanted to go rogue, too. This approval extends to an official recognition when Senator Organa sends his daughter — a Princess and a Senator — to oversee the battle as a side trip on her way to Tatooine to pick up Obi-wan Kenobi. Leia doesn’t do anything except to narrowly escape with the plans (a “diplomatic mission,” she explains to Darth Vader, as if excusing the firefight as a government function). As a politician part of the system, Leia brings with her the “hope” of reform. Her hope leads to an even newer hope in the form of her twin brother.
But if Luke is to become the guardian of peace and order in the Galaxy, then rogues who shake up peace and order have to go. Fittingly, Jyn dies, vaporized into stardust. Sarah Palin would have loved it: the rogues go out like martyrs — a Joan of Arc-like image the former governor embraced in her own movie, The Undefeated, a documentary designed to propel Palin as a presidential contender for 2012. “I’ve never had the luxury of political opinions,” Jyn says at one point, later adding, “The time to fight is now!” Palin, who rallied her supporters with the battle cry “Fight like a girl,” couldn’t have said it better.
Rogue One’s box office success speaks to its broad appeal across the political aisle. But as a political narrative, Rogue One is awfully limited. It reads as an aberration; without an episode number, it falls outside the chronology of what took place “a long time ago.” Trump might appreciate the message — his own administration is itself a transition into a restored narrative of “greatness,” as his actions have made the people aware of how fragile the democratic process is, and the need to protect it. But for Rogue One, its story has ended. The actors are under contract for a second film, but a sequel is not likely in the works, unless the stars turn into a band of Bothans — furry aliens who steal the plans for the Second Death Star. Until then, Jyn’s brand of going rogue is rendered moot as the episodic timeline returns this December, along with the struggle to not only restore freedom, but a Republic as well.