U.S. Intellectual History Blog

ROGUE ONE and the Propaganda of Resistance

Last night my son and I went to see Rogue One, the latest Star Wars movie.[1]  It’s a very good action movie, which is to say that it’s the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back (1980), though that’s a fairly low bar.  It works the way most good action movies work.  Its plot builds real stakes. Its main characters are just well-rounded enough to be interesting.  And its action sequences build in scale and intensity to a satisfying climax. And unlike most action movies these days, whose plots are largely designed to set up the sequel, Rogue One feels complete…though it manages this in part because, in this case, we’ve all already seen the sequel, which came out forty years ago.

Rogue One also avoids the principal sins of the last Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), which in fairness was the previous holder of the title of the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.[2] The Force Awakens is practically a remake of A New Hope (aka Star Wars (1977)).  Most of the film is devoted to fan service.  Since The Force Awakens‘s director and co-writer J.J. Abrams is both a huge Star Wars fan and an accomplished cinematic ventriloquist, the results were, at their infrequent best, exhilarating, occasionally clever, and, more often, overly familiar and uninteresting.  In contrast, the fan service in Rogue One is much more minimal and much more satisfying (in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll leave it there).

Like most of the other Star Wars movies, Rogue One is a film about revolutionary resistance. However, the political vision of the Star Wars films has always been somewhat incoherent, though not for want of effort on the part of Star Wars‘s original creator, George Lucas, who, if anything, took Star Wars too seriously.  His vision of the original film as an episode in the middle of a saga allowed him to wave away a lot of potential audience questions with the famous opening title crawl.  Part of the brilliance of the original film was that it made all of its own loose ends feel like exciting stories that we just hadn’t been told yet.[3]  Still, for a film that was at some level about a political struggle, the politics of the original Star Wars seemed jumbled. A scrappy rebel alliance, that included a Princess as a key player, was struggling against an evil Galactic Empire, whose emperor never showed up on screen.  And when the good guys emerge triumphant at the film’s end, they are celebrated in a ceremony that Lucas borrowed from the most famous of Nazi movies, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

In contrast, Rogue One‘s politics, while hardly complicated, make sense and are narratively satisfying.  Rogue One suggests that resistance involves risk taking and sacrifice.  It also suggests that there are rarely clean hands among those involved in a violent resistance movement, but that this fact does not prevent the resistance from doing good (indeed, the film almost suggests that a resistance movement cannot succeed if everyone worries about keeping their hands clean).  Though the universe of Star Wars remains divided between Good and Evil, many of the characters at the core of the movie are ambivalent: Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist who is helping the Empire build the Death Star, but building in a fatal flaw, his daughter (and the film’s chief protagonist) Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) seems to have largely grown up around the Rebel Alliance, but is alienated from politics, Casian Andor (Diego Luna) is a Rebel Alliance intelligence officer who spends much of the film lying to Jyn, and Saw Gerrerro (Forrest Whittaker) is a former rebel who’s gone rogue and no longer answers to the Rebel Alliance.  Finally, the film suggests that political opportunity often does not arrive as planned and that resistance movements need to be flexible and willing to press possibilities that present themselves.

None of these are deep or unusual political points; Rogue One remains first and foremost an action / scifi movie.  But they are all perfectly sensible and clear political lessons that the film provides.

* * *

Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the propaganda of resistance.  Eight years ago, the Tea Party began to form. The left responded largely by laughing. The Tea Party’s politics seemed incoherent.  Its leading groups were more astroturf than grassroots. Its political demands were unclear and seemed unobtainable; after all, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.  And its version of Revolutionary history also seemed ridiculously wrong.

As the Tea Party showed great staying power and political effectiveness, more serious analyses of it began to appear.  Most of these tried to locate the Tea Party in relation to other strains of conservatism (the assumption was often made that it was a distinct strain of conservatism). And Jill Lepore wrote an entire book focusing on what bad history the Tea Party trafficked in.

Now eight years later, it is hard not to marvel at the Tea Party’s success, both in reinforcing certain tendencies in the Republican Party and in winning political power without actually getting anything like a majority of the American public to endorse its political vision.  Looking back I am struck not by the incoherence of the Tea Party’s demands or the analytic failings of its “antihistory” (as Lepore has called it), but rather by the great success of the Tea Party’s revolutionary mythos in organizing that political movement.

What worked about the Tea Party’s vision of the American Revolution was not its accuracy (it had none) but rather its availability.  The Tea Party appealed to a story of resistance that nearly everyone already knew and provided the basis for the simplest of all political arguments: if they could do it, so can we.

Such political myths can be incredibly empowering.  Something like them may even be necessary to tie together a social movement, especially when short-term goals and tactics are unclear or protean.

*  *  *

If the resistance to Trump is going to have staying power, I suspect that they will, like the Tea Party before them, need to find enabling myths.  And these myths will, almost by definition, have to be already at hand, shared stories into which the anti-Trump forces can place themselves.  Would I recommend that they turn to the Star Wars universe for that enabling mythos?  Absolutely not, especially given both the incoherence of so much of Star Wars’s politics and the proprietary nature of its stories. It’s a major disadvantage, I think, if one’s political mythos isn’t even public domain.

But Rogue One, to my surprise, reminded me of the potential power of the propaganda of resistance. If the anti-Trump forces should somehow end up imagining themselves as the Rebel Alliance, they could do a lot worse.[4]

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[1] Technically, it’s not a Star Wars movie, as it’s not part of the numbered set of films that constitutes the Star Wars saga, but rather the first standalone Star Wars Anthology film set in the Star Wars universe.  Given that Rogue One is effectively a prequel to A New Hope / Episode IV (i.e. the original Star Wars) this seems like a fairly arcane distinction.

[2] Like I said, it’s a fairly low bar.

[3] Unfortunately, decades later, we found out about the midi-chlorians.

[4] In fact, the Alt Right is already freaking out about Rogue One….and the left is making fun of them for it. Perhaps that’s the wrong reaction to the freak out.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, Ben! I’m pushing some family members to see this with me today. I will offer some kind of informed comment(s) after that viewing. – TL

  2. This review is spot on–that is, my experience of the movie was essentially the same. It was also interesting to see a divide among the leaders of the Alliance, the different positions took around the ideal of active, revolutionary resistance.

    Some folks have criticized the film for how it perpetuates the white-savior complex through the character of Jyn Erso–even as the director clearly tried to diversify the cast. I would add to this that the top echelon of the Alliance are all white (except for the non-human admiral). Needless to say, the Empire’s leadership is all-white. It would be interesting if in the future one of the Star Wars films included at least a direct reference to these racial hierarchies, some kind of wink about how the world it presents is still quite racialized.

  3. Nice read.

    A few things came to mind after watching the film/reading this piece.

    1) There is a fair critique of ‘Rogue’ (circling the web) that it lacks a proper context. That is to say, if someone who has never seen a ‘Star Wars’ film (they do exist) were to watch ‘Rogue’, would this person understand the significance of the Empire? why the Rebellion is necessary and should be rooted for? what the Force is? what is the significance of (if any) the costumed man in black with a shiny helmet? what is the purpose of the Death Star in the larger galactic-political situation? is the Empire at war, if so, with whom? what is the Senate? etc. etc.

    I wonder if this point can be countered by citing other movies that take certain things (say historical) for granted? For example, Quentin Tarantino’s take on WWII in ‘Inglourious Basterds’. Does the audience need to at least know who the Nazis really are and the significance of the War to appreciate the movie better?

    2) Re: the rise of the TEA Party, it is hard to ignore one major contributing factor to this grassroots movement** was the tremendous financial and political support that was provided to the “local” political actors. Gatherings, supplies, entire political campaigns were financed in large part thanks to politically-motivated millionaires and billionaires on the right; this coupled with the indefatigable coverage by FOX News (at first), and the quick embrace by the GOP. Grassroots indeed.

    3) Horkheimer/Adorno’s “Culture Industry” came to mind when thinking about ‘Rogue One’ and the TEA Party. Disney has taken a factory-style approach with the new ‘Star Wars’ films, rolling one out every year now for the foreseeable future. It is disappointing how these new films capitalize more on fan-service nostalgia than good storytelling; how they feel like a continuation of large corporate studio’s homogenous approaches to rebrand the same stories to maximize profits; how disingenuous it feels to have a film’s message about resisting totalitarian forces coming from a major cultural hegemon like Disney. It just strikes me how our only means of revolution (real or imagined) now seem at the beck and call of monied interests.

    Anyway… fun movie. Thanks for the post.

    Anyone wanna join me at the Grand Hotel Abyss? Great happy hour specials…

  4. Really enjoyed this, and wanted to specifically give a round of applause to this kick ass metaphor: “Its leading groups were more astroturf than grassroots.”

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