My piece from earlier this week, expressing the hope that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” might find a way to deal with politics and institutions, has garnered a number of very interesting responses from Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg, Seth Masket at the Washington Monthly and, finally, from my pal Dan Drezner at PostEverything.
As it turns out, I actually think we’re on the same page on a lot of issues. Masket is right that “Star Trek Into Darkness” is, in fact, a pretty shoddy treatment of the politics of targeted killings, and while some of its problems are surely due to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s script, J.J. Abrams has hardly proved himself Alan J. Pakula.
Bernstein is correct that television shows have outflanked movies in the treatment of institutions in recent years. But big movie franchises now function much more like television series than like actual stand-alone movies. To take one example, Marvel has already released nine interrelated superhero movies that exist in a single story line, weaved them together with an actual television show, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and put another nine movies on their calendar, which stretches all the way through 2019. As my friend Peter Suderman wrote in his review of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “There’s a visionary who oversees the writers and directors working on the individual productions, and there are even teasers at the end of each installment hinting at what’s to come. Marvel is making a TV series for the multiplex, two hours and $200 million at a time.”
But I want to talk a little bit about Drezner’s objections, because I think they raise some interesting points about what we understand “political” movies to be. He writes:
The “Star Wars” films that focused more on politics were easily the worst ones in the franchise, and J.J. Abrams has a very poor track record when he concentrates on anything other than lens flares action-packed space opera. Furthermore, a real problem with Lucas’s prequels is that their narrative arc didn’t really leave this galaxy. “Revenge of the Sith” was so easily viewed as an allegory for the Bush administration’s exploitation of the war on terrorism that the number of similar commentaries on the subject made it seem like an attack of the clones…
The politics of the prequels were more complex — at the expense of things like, you know, characterization. The new trailer suggests that the Imperial forces have not exactly disappeared, which means that the politics here probably will be about a Rebel Alliance facing growth pains as it tries to actually govern. Although the political scientist in me is intrigued by that narrative possibility , the sci-fi geek in me is petrified that these questions will bore the hell out of me while I’m watching — or, worse, enrage me, like Anakin Skywalker’s political pontificating. And we all know what happens when fear and anger enter into the political equation.
Second, the stone-cold truth about Lucas’s “Star Wars” universe is that the politics of it are inherently elitist. The whole concept of the Jedi embraces an elitist, cartelistic view of power. Because the Force is awakening in this next movie, the Jedi will still be an ongoing political project in these films. And I’m wary that they can be used to discuss any grand political themes that resonate in our own galaxy.
It’s absolutely true that the scenes of political bodies and political processes in the “Star Wars” prequels are utterly deadening. But just because George Lucas didn’t know how to make legislative proceedings exciting doesn’t mean it can’t be done: the note-passing sequences set in Parliament in the British mini-series “State of Play” ought to be in every aspiring political filmmaker’s queue. And anyone who’s seen the second season of “The Wire,” read J. Anthony Lukas’s “Big Trouble” or seen a John Sayles movie knows that just because the Trade Federation was both a weird collection of racist stereotypes and narratively dull doesn’t mean that economic forces can’t be tremendously compelling on-screen.
But I do think there’s a way to balance character development, a clash of institutions and an explanation of the big dynamics that are driving the advance of the New Republic and the decline of the Empire.
Luke Skywalker may have initially thrown in with the Rebellion because of his anger at the loss of his parents and the appeal of Princess Leia’s pretty face. But as he rebuilds the Jedi Order, he’ll have to make decisions about the “ongoing political project” that Drezner describes. Will the Jedi function like a global police force? Or a religious order that is largely withdrawn from public life, but that some politicians seek out as a source of wisdom on policy decisions?
Han Solo agreed to transport Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi across the galaxy to earn the money to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt. But by the end of “Return of the Jedi,” he is a general, assuming a significant role in a military organization after having been tossed out of the Imperial Academy in his youth before he became a smuggler. How comfortable is he working within a large institution and being a public figure, accountable to both a fledgling government and potentially to Leia’s career as well?
And as for Leia herself, it’s one thing to be in an opposition movement, and another entirely to actually have to govern. What might the New Republic be for, once the thing it stood against no longer has a chokehold (Force and otherwise) on galactic politics? And what relationship does the New Republic bear to Leia’s youthful ideals?
And while I think that Drezner is correct that the prequels tried a little too hard to be about the War on Terror, movies can be political while not being about our politics. George Lucas’s original “Star Wars” movies managed to comment on the Vietnam War while also producing a story that felt relevant outside that context by taking the basic dynamic of insurgency and jettisoning the earth-bound details. J.J. Abrams could do the same by remembering that sometimes it’s easier for us to see ourselves not by looking in the mirror, but by turning our attention to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.