Last year, ahead of the release of the “Star Wars” film “Rogue One,” Disney chief executive Bob Iger made an emphatic claim when asked about the movie’s message: “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, speaking about what was then the latest addition to the sprawling sci-fi saga. “There are no political statements in it, at all.”
Iger was reacting to controversy over (quickly deleted) tweets from two of the film’s writers. Chris Weitz had observed that the series’ Galactic Empire represented “a white supremacist organization.” It was “opposed,” commented his colleague Gary Whitta, “by a multicultural group led by brave women.” Just weeks after the election of President Donald Trump and the culmination of an acrimonious, racially charged political campaign, the film was hailed by some as “anti-Trumpian” – and subject to boycotts by irate members of the alt-right, a coterie of white nationalists who were upset about the film’s supposed liberal bent.
There seems to be less hubbub as the newest film in the franchise, “The Last Jedi,” opens around the world this weekend. (We have not seen the film yet and you will find no spoilers below.) But that doesn’t mean there are no politics in the Star Wars franchise. Quite the contrary, authors of science-fiction and fantasy often stuff their stories with parables for contemporary times. And a legion of Star Wars aficionados have thought deeply – perhaps too deeply – about this fictional universe for decades, drawing all sorts of meaning from its lightsaber-wielding heroes and planet-destroying orbs.
Hollywood Reporter tweeted “Friday was @StarWars night on #Kimmel, and @JimmyKimmel decided to use a Darth Vader analogy to illustrate the relationship between Trump and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn”
It’s a testament to the franchise that both liberals and conservatives derive happy metaphors from the story. Earlier this year, Craig Shirley, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, wrote a column for The Washington Post on how the first movie in the franchise, “Star Wars” presented the “ultimate conservative morality tale.” Shirley argued that the film, released 40 years ago, highlighted “a young group of independent rebels fighting against an oppressive, collectivist empire for the freedom of the galaxy.”
No credit for guessing who Shirley thinks the story’s bad guys are: “The militarized Galactic Empire was ruled with an iron fist by a Politburo and an emperor,” he explained, gesturing to the Soviet Union. “Its main tactics for unity and stability were enslavement, fear, death and destruction, especially with its new planet-killing weapon. Its uniforms of masked, bright-white armor destroyed any sense of identity; a soldier was simply a number.”
In contrast, the “Force” – the cosmic power harnessed by the Jedi, a kind of monastic tribe of galactic knights – “is a hint of Judeo-Christianity as a unifying agent for goodness,” while the rebels they assist are anti-Soviet renegades. “They were a small, motivated force who learned they could defeat a large, unmotivated force,” wrote Shirley, who then badly mixed historical metaphors. “It was George Washington against the British Empire.”
George Lucas, the guy who invented the whole thing, actually had something quite different in mind. The great political narrative of “Star Wars” is rooted in ancient history (one familiar to readers of this column): How a republic, beset by complacency, naivete and quite a few wars, withers away into tyranny. Lucas was animated not by the Soviet Union, but something far closer to home. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where [President Richard] Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships?” Lucas told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
Lucas rolled out his much-maligned “prequel” Star Wars trilogy around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In one installment, he even had the future Darth Vader declare “if you are not with us, you are my enemy,” echoing the “with us or against us” rhetoric of then-President George W. Bush. It seemed Lucas was aligning the imperial impulse in American politics with the evil Sith, the anti-Jedi of his story.
“I know that’s the line that George Bush said, but many other people who have run countries have said it before him,” said Ian McDiarmid, the actor who played Chancellor Palpatine, the figure who morphs into the evil Emperor. “That really is a great Sith line.”
Lucas went even further with the New York Times: “George Bush is Darth Vader. [Vice President Dick] Cheney is the Emperor,” he said.
Curiously, in recent years, a slew of right-wing critics have embraced the cause of the bad guys in Star Wars films. They see the Empire’s brute actions – like the obliteration of a planet to terrorize a rebellion – as the necessary means of executing a just war against insurgents. The Republic, meanwhile, is an insufferable European Union in space, a confederacy of preening elites barely less contemptible than the militaristic Empire.
“The Jedi – as portrayed in the movies and in many of the books of the expanded universe – are basically the lightsaber-wielding jihadists of an intergalactic bureaucratic caliphate,” wrote David French two years ago in the right-wing National Review. “The Galactic Republic is the Hotel California of interstellar governance. You can check out, but you can never leave – at least not if you want to keep your head on your shoulders.”
The new trilogy, including the film coming out this weekend, also revolves around contemporary political themes: How great moments of hope are fleeting, how old orders are difficult to dislodge, how powerful regimes can so easily turn to a kind of paranoid fascism. But it also grapples with the role and power of the Jedi, an unaccountable order whose fate, after a series of missteps and many bruising battles, hangs in the balance.
Dan Drezner, a veteran Star Wars philosopher and a professor who writes for The Post, is one of many fans who have noted how the ostensible heroes of the saga and their ideology look evermore fallible. If a generation (or two) has looked forward to the Jedi’s inevitable return to power – bending the moral arc of the galaxy back toward their brand of justice – perhaps we’ve all been learning the wrong lessons.
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