In other words, I didn't want to carry my dislike of CGI or anger with Lucas over "Greedo shoots first" (in the 1997 edition of A New Hope) into this deliberate retrospective. Instead, I wanted to see what the films genuinely offered, free of "expectations." I wanted to be open to the saga and its epic tapestry, not limited by own pre-conceptions as a critic and fan. If that's possible.
Here's what I saw: At the risk of angering the faithful, those whose hearts have burned with a love of the original trilogy for nearly 30 years, I discovered - to my utter astonishment - that all six Star Wars films are of roughly equivalent quality. Special effects had advanced, but in general, all the films are remarkably good, and despite the approximately fifteen year span separating the Originals from the Prequels, they all feel distinctly of "a piece." There's thematic and stylistic consistency. This was a revelation to me, because my knee jerk reaction had been that the prequels kinda sucked...
By way of a comparison, consider the variability of the Star Trek films. Now I love Star Trek even more than Star Wars, but those movies? Whew! You've got your outstanding ones (Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country), your controversial ones (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), your mainstream, popular ones (The Voyage Home, First Contact) and you've got the ones that disappointed the hell out of you but which you love anyway (The Final Frontier, Generations, Insurrection). And then you've got the one that is absolute crap (Nemesis) and you can't redeem no matter how hard you try. However, no matter which Star Trek films you ultimately prefer, and I enjoy watching all of them from time to time, one can't really believably make the claim that in toto, they're of "a piece." Each has a different look, tone and feel than the previous installment. Even on a production level this is true: remember how the bridge of the Klingon bird of prey changed from Search to Spock to Voyage Home?
But Star Wars is, I believe, determinedly different. As much as I'm a Trekker (and boy am I a Trekker!), the Star Wars films are more consistent internally from chapter to chapter and that makes them, I believe, intrinsically artistic and worthy of study. Also, viewing George Lucas's saga this time, I was struck by how the director subtly employs production design to make thematic points, particularly in his rendering of the Galactic Republic as a 1930s art-deco America, before the march of fascism in Europe and World War II. The Phantom Menace and the early films evidence this amazing "golden age" feeling, and one quite at odds with the grim, gray, utilitarian world of a dominant tyrannical Empire that we see in A New Hope. If you're not looking for this change, your first instinct will be to complain that the prequels don't look precisely like the original. Well that's right, they don't. Because the galaxy has "evolved" or devolved after the turbulent political changes, but the consistency is there because we can chart that change. What's new and gleaming in the prequels is trashed, old, mottled and scarred in the Original Trilogy. The world of "beautiful" spaceships has given way to the world of utilitarian ones; there is no place for art (or creativity or individuality) in the lock-step world of the Empire. Reflective silver surfaces have given way to flat battleship gray.
As I wrote above, I have delayed writing this post for some time. Why? Because I feel that my reading of the film, though authentic and I believe accurate, will anger some people. You see, I've come to the conclusion that of the sixth films, Revenge of the Sith is not only my favorite Star Wars film, it's also the best -- and the one that speaks most clearly about the ultimate themes of the film series. Yep, and that includes The Empire Strikes Back. So I wanted to take my time and explain why I feel this way, not just dash off a quick, easy review. Also, what I conclude about Revenge of the Sith today will anger some readers because I see it very much in terms of political conditions today. If that bothers you, please read no further.
So anyway, after that lengthy, rambling pre-amble, let me get at it. This post is about the "politics" of the Star Wars saga, particularly this film. I'll get to other aspects of the film in the days ahead. (I have too many thoughts about this film, and this saga, to confine them to one post. Sorry!)
Revenge of the Sith finds the Galactic Republic embroiled in a Civil War with Separatists. Indeed, "War" is the very first word that appears in the film (on that famous yellow crawl...). Chancellor Palpatine (in office long past his term...) has been captured by the Separatists, and after an incredible space battle, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker board the craft of General Grievous and Count Dooku to rescue him. During the mission, Anakin slips towards the Dark Side by letting his vengeance get the better of him (an act of murder urged on by Palpatine).
Meanwhile, Amidala reveals that she is with child, and this revelation terrifies Anakin, for he has been experiencing terrible visions (like the one about his mother, in Attack of the Clones.) He fears that Amidala will die in childbirth and feels impotent to prevent this grim fate. Angry and feeling powerless Anakin seeks out the tutelage of Palpatine, who tells him that there are ways to save Amidala, if only he explores the Dark Side of the Force.
Eventually, feeling he has no option, Anakin succumbs. He betrays the Jedi Order but in doing so, no longer remains the man that Amidala loved. On opposite sides of the war now, Obi Wan and Anakin duel, and Obi Wan wins, leaving a hobbled, burned Anakin to die on the side of a volcano. While the Galaxy slips into darkness and an Empire is born, Amidala dies of a broken heart after giving birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. Anakin survives, but is now more machine than man, locked into a mechanical suit - a cage - and re-named Darth Vader.
In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." To me, that is the essential idea at the heart of Revenge of the Sith, both in terms of the Republic, and on a more personal level, Anakin himself. And, in the tradition of all great art, it is a message that relates directly to the time we live in.
What has happened in the Republic? Well, to face a "grave and gathering" threat (the Separatist movement), the Senate has voted for the creation of a "standing" clone army to fight evil renegade Count Dooku. In one thousand years of life (and presumably having vanquished other threats), the Republic has not required such an army, but rather has been safeguarded by the noble protectors of peace, The Jedi Knight. The first chip away at individual liberty in the Republic thus occurs when the Senate sacrifices the principles it has honored for so long, and puts a huge military force under the control of one man, the Chancellor. Then, by appealing to the Senate's sense of patriotism, the Chancellor is given further "Emergency Powers." He remains in office well past his appointed term, and then - claiming an assassination attempt - alters the structure of the Republic in the name of security. Now, he tells the Senate to "thunderous applause," it shall be a strong and safe Empire...but committed to peace. This is how, as Amidala says, democracies die.
There are a number of interesting factors about this set-up that relate directly to America in the last several years (the time the prequels were made and released). The first thing to consider is this: we saw in Phantom Menace exactly how an Emperor began his ascent, chipping away at democracy a piece at a time. A Dark Lord and his allies, using the technicalities of the law removed the Supreme Chancellor (Valorum) from office, consequently gaining power for themselves. They did so by claiming that the Senate's bureaucracy had swelled to unmanageable and non-functional levels (i.e. they want small, effective government) and that Valorum himself was a weak man beset by scandal. The antidote was a self-described "strong leader," someone who could rally the Senate and get it to work again - someone like, say, Palpatine. In other words, a man was chosen to replace a flawed leader, a man who could restore "honor and dignity" to the Republic.
In real world terms, this is precisely like the Republican-led House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1999, and then having George W. Bush - a cowboy-like "maverick" from Texas - running on a conservative platform (meaning he would cut through the red tape of bureaucracy). Tellingly, he promised indeed to "restore honor and dignity" to high office. Now, I know people may quibble with this assessment since it casts one party in a "good" light and the other "dark," but this is unquestionably what happened in American politics circa 1999-2001. One party attempted to bring down a leader of the other party, and then in the next election, beat the party in authority by promising strength, honor, and security and highlighting the malfeasance of the former head of state. If Clinton had been a Republican and the impeachment managers in the House of Representatives were democrats, I'd be making exactly same argument, only with parties flipped. I'm not trying to be partisan, here. Really, stay with me.
Now consider what Americans have said is "okay" to in the name of preserving their safety and security since the attacks of 2001. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a sweeping bill called the Patriot Act, which among other things, gave the U.S. government new powers to peek into the private lives of Americans without even necessarily alerting the watched that it was happening. The U.S. government has now asserted, in the name of national security, that is has the right to wiretap Americans without first getting a court order to do so. The War on Terror - an endless war (or at least longer than World War II...) has been the excuse for this. The legal argument for this seizing of power is called the "Unitary Executive."
By any other name, a Unitary Executive is an Emperor. Whether it be Hillary Clinton next time around or George W. Bush today, it's a dangerous precedent. The danger is not in ceding authority to a Republican, per se, or a democrat, but rather in centralizing the power of a democracy within one individual, rather than several co-equal branches. To take this out of the realm of Earthly politics (though Lucas has stated explicitly that he wrote Star Wars as a response to the law-breaking and power consolidation he saw during the Nixon Administration), Star Wars is about what occurs when one powerful person (in this case, Palpatine) attempts to scare free people into surrendering their liberties. He succeeds in that quest in Revenge of the Sith. A democracy is transformed into tyranny.
I know people will complain about me equating our current President with the Emperor. I reiterate: if Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, or friggin Mickey Mouse attempted to subvert the Constitution in the exact same fashion, I would complain as mightily and as loudly. And textually, I really don't know how people can say that Lucas isn't referring to current events with this film.
To wit: on November 6, 2001, George Bush announced to the world: "You are either with us or against us" in this war on terrorism. In May 2005, George Lucas explicitly put the following words into Anakin Skywalker's mouth: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." And Obi-Wan's rebuttal? "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." To quote George Tenet, this is a slam dunk case. I would argue that there is no other appropriate way to read this remark except as an explicit rebuke of our country's current "black-and-white" thinking.
I know, somebody's going to say, but John - you liberal surrender monkey, don't you think we should fight terror? I bet you love Osama Bin Laden!
To which I would respond, there's nothing "liberal" about believing in the rule of law and an adequate separation of powers in the United States...or in the Galactic Republic. That's a "strict construction" of what the Constitution states. Contrarily, it's the "activist" position to believe that our Constitution permits a "Unitary Executive" who can operate above the law and claim "Executive Privilege" to cover his malfeasance.. But for the metaphor to hold, one has to understand that the Emperor's war on the Separatists is the same as our "War on Terror." And I believe it is. Remember, Count Dooku and Palpatine were in league all along to foster this war. Did that happen in our time, as well?
Consider that Donald Rumsfeld, the previous Secretary of Defense, was President Reagan’s personal emissary to Saddam Hussein former dictator of Iraq, to open diplomatic relations with that country in December of 1983. In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, again visited with Saddam Hussein of Iraq. His second trip coincided with the release of a United Nations report condemning the dictator for using deadly nerve and mustard gas on Iranian troops. Yet In 2003, Donald Rumseld planned and executed the invasion of Iraq because Hussein had used chemical weapons before and might do so again. Yes, indeed, the dictator had done so during Rumsfeld's previous assignment! How had a "friend" one day become a "foe" on another? So sure, Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator. But he was in 1984 too, when the American government happily did business with him. We didn't invade then, did we? So, like Star Wars, there is a "history" of alliance between the Republic's government and the Republic's enemies (the Separatists). Going even further, Osama Bin Laden was our "pal" in the 1980s too, fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided and abetted in that endeavor by Reagan's CIA. So while George W. Bush is the "Emperor," I believe, Count Dooku is either Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein: a useful fool who is a friend when we need a friend and an enemy when we need an enemy. In the end, his aggression is simply a cover for one man (and one ideology) to seize power domestically.
What is clever and artistic about this metaphor is not merely that it is timely (and frightening), but that Lucas tells his story not merely in terms of sweeping galactic governments, but in personal, individual terms. Anakin goes through the same journey personally that the Republic citizenry undergoes on a wide scale. Consider that he too is "terrorized," or rather, the victim of a terrible attack. Not necessarily by the Separatists, but by the Sand People on Tatooine. They kill his Mother. That loss hurts him deeply, and he has his revenge against the agents who hurt him. But then Anakin begins experiencing visions that he will also lose his beloved wife. So, like the Republic itself, Anakin willingly exchanges freedom and liberty for safety and security. He surrenders his golden ideals and turns to the Dark Side because he fears more "attacks," he fears the loss of his family. Thus Anakin is a follower. Might as well be a clone.
Anakin is prone to this weakness early, as we can tell from his discussion on Naboo with Amidala in Attack of the Clones; when he notes that a Dictatorship would make things easier, and thus prove preferable to democracy. Indeed it would be easier, which is why some Americans so gladly accept the idea of a Unitary Executive. George Bush, after all, is the man who has explicitly stated "freedom should have limits," and also on no less than three occasions that a dictatorship is simpler than democracy.
"You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier," Bush stated as Governor of Texas (Governing Magazine, 7/98). "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator," Bush said on CNN.com, December 18, 2000. Finally, there's this: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," Bush was quoted as saying in Business Week, July 30, 2001. Note that all three of these remarks came before Attack of the Clones. Then ponder on just how closely Anakin's remarks in that film mirror these statements. Intentional or not, all these remarks are undeniably creepy: a fond wistfulness espousing the good qualities of tyranny? And didn't September 11, 2001 provide just the excuse to push a democracy towards tyranny? Coincidence or Darth Cheney? You decide.
For all his skills as a pilot and a warrior, Anakin is a weak-minded individual who would rather follow than lead; rather cede individual power and freedom to a dictatorship than make the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with a democracy. Again - Anakin is a metaphor for the American populace. When attacked, the first thing we do is scream for the government to protect us. We allow the Patriot Act to pass, and don't complain. We allow habeas corpus to be suspended...and we don't complain. We permit the Geneva Conventions to be violated...and we say nothing. We essentially become mindless, quivering "robots,' victims of politically-timed "Terror Alerts." When the government says jump, we automatically respond: "how high?' In other words, we all become Darth Vader: a mechanical shell of our former selves, one now caged. What remains appears humanoid, but functions mechanically and automatically; doing what is ordered.
And when does Darth Vader/Anakin finally reject the Emperor? When his family is threatened...again. When it once more becomes a personal matter for him. He turns on his master not because it is the right thing to do, not for the ideals of democracy, but because he has been ordered to murder his son. I fear this is also true of America. We will not rise up against tyranny until it affects us personally; until we are asked to sacrifice something personal...our families or homes. So the journey of Darth Vader is the journey of us. Anakin/Vader is explicitly a reminder of what happens to citizens when they cease to be rational; when they become so fearful that they trade away liberty for safety. In the end, even those who think they are safe, will suffer under the tyranny (as Return of the Jedi informs us.)
The War on Terror, like the War on the Separatists, we are told by Lucas, is nothing short of a power grab. It happened in Rome "a long time ago" and it almost happened with Nixon in the 1970s. And make no mistake, it is happening now. Ask yourself this question: do you really believe that Bush is consolidating all this governmental power only to leave office in 18 months? Search your feelings, Luke. Do you really believe that Bush has asserted his right as a Unitary Executive only to give it all up (and hand the reins of this massively expanded presidential power over to Hillary Clinton) in 2009? Or will the next terrorist attack be the one that cancels the presidential election and turns a heroic savior, Bush into the ugly Emperor of the Star Wars series? Already we are being set-up for it. Director of Homeland Security Chertoff's gut tells him another attack is coming, and suddenly we're hearing how Al-Qaeda is resurgent. So the only question is: how will you respond when the next terrorist attack comes? Will your fear "consume" you like it consumed Anakin? Or will you take up light saber and join the rebel alliance?
What remains so commendable about Star Wars, and in particular Revenge of the Sith is that George Lucas has given us a story about our times, but he has done so utilizing the language of mythology. There is no "Abu-Ghraib" episode; there is no "post September 11" mentality. There is no obvious metaphor for Islam and sleeper cells (spelled C-Y-L-O-N). On the contrary, Lucas has shown us that a galaxy far, far away holds much in common with what has occurred in human history; and what is happening now. It's all vetted on a symbolic level, not an obvious one.
Consider that the Star Wars films are about - over and over again - man's battle against the "dark side." Unlike many fans who respond to the films on a somewhat superficial level, I don't see that battle necessarily as occurring with light sabers, blasters and spaceships, but rather inside the human soul. First Anakin, then Luke Skywalker is tempted to fall before darkness, to give in to hate and fear. The father does so; the son does not. But the movies repeat these themes (from one trilogy to the next), because that's humanity's constant battle. I can apply that battle to George W. Bush and our War on Terror, and you can see how so much of it fits together, but you can also apply the films to other historical periods and cultures. That's why Star Wars resonates so much on a simple storytelling level. It's not just about "here and now," but rather man's perpetual struggle to fend off despotism. What's really sad (if rewarding artistically..) is that the tale of democracy compromised tracks so clearly and easily with our times.
Next on sw blogging: Fitting the Star Wars series together; how the films connect; and where they don't connect.