Thursday, June 23, 2005

George Lucas vs. Michael Moore

I saw Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith this week. I found it entertaining and satisfying. Having seen the original trilogy when it first came out, I was curious to know the background stories of Luke, Leia, Yoda's exile, and how Darth Vader became the evil villain we love to hate. The movie works well at that level.

But is there another level to it? Does the movie also convey a political message? One of my favourite blogs, Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, has commented on the supposed anti-Bush bias of Episode III.

There are two main scenes to consider. In the first scene, Anakin — part way down the path of his transformation into Darth Vader — remarks, "You're with me or you're my enemy." This is a near-quote of George Bush's infamous statement, "If you're not with me, you're against me." Obi Wan speaks for the good guys when he replies, "Only the Sith speak in absolutes."

In the second scene, Chancellor Palpatine is addressing the Senate. He declares that the Republic will henceforth be an Empire. I can't recall the exact wording, but Palpatine defends the shift by saying that it will enhance security. When the Senators applaud, Queen Amidala remarks, "So this is how democracy dies — to thunderous applause."

Ralphie at Kerckhoff's Coffeehouse doubts that Episode III has an anti-Bush message:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Lucas claims he was thinking about the past, such as Nazism. Aside from Obi Wan's line … that's what I was thinking. After all, his use of the term "stormtroopers" was not too subtle.

And the stuff the emperor does - such as press the senate to give him additional powers and make overwrought speeches to thronging masses - is Hitlerian indeed.
I don't quite agree with Ralphie on this one. In my opinion, George Lucas is taking a bit of a poke at the Bush administration. On the other hand, Lucas is not to be mistaken for Michael Moore. I haven't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 but, by all accounts, it is none-too-subtle.

Lucas clearly has a message, but it's a broad one. The Wall Street Journal explains:
The director keeps insisting that he wrote the basic "Star Wars" saga decades ago. He was thinking of Hitler, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, he has said at various times; and if recent events have proved him prescient, that just shows that history keeps repeating itself....

In truth, the themes of "Star Wars" are so universal, and so familiar (like Darth Vader, Satan is a former good guy gone over to the dark side), that they can be read any way one likes. The message that freedom and democracy must be vigilantly protected is always worth repeating.
The first point is disingenuous. Sure Lucas planned the movies decades ago, but he made this movie in a post-9/11 context.

So let's try to achieve a nuanced position. Lucas has a broad, pro freedom message, not a narrow, anti-Bush message. But the movie touches on current events that trouble many Americans (and Canadians like me).

Lucas is more of an artist than Michael Moore. He tells a story, set in a galaxy far, far away, and the story stands on its own. But Lucas doesn't leave it at that. He throws in an allusion to Nazi Germany here ("stormtroopers") and an allusion to George Bush there ("if you're not with me…").

Lucas expects the movie-goer to think for herself. Emperor Palpatine is a type of Hitler. Does President Bush fit into the same category?

I think the answer is, He could, if he continues along his current trajectory.

I need to express myself carefully here. Very few people are so evil as to be in Hitler's league, and President Bush certainly isn't one of them. Misguided? — I think so. Doctrinaire, undoubtedly. But not evil.

President Bush subscribes to a binary worldview (good/evil, friend/enemy, us/them) that I find alarming. And he is in danger of getting the balance wrong:  too much emphasis on security at the expense of civil liberties.

I think George Lucas would agree with that assessment, but he doesn't say it in so many words. He respects the movie-goer's intelligence enough to leave the dots unconnected.

As a result, Star Wars: Episode III works on that level, too.


At 4:32 PM, June 23, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

It's interesting. Liberal-minded folk see GWB in some of the allusions, and they like it; right-leaning folk see it, too, and they don't like it; and Lucas was thinking of Hitler, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, anyway.

Is this disingenuous? I don't think so. He probably was thinking of those things, and others, further back into history. The examples cited would apply to all those people/events, and others. If they also fit GWB, that tells us something (and Lucas probably doesn't mind this at all), but it's quite possible that wasn't his primary intention.

Question is: can viewer overcome their knee-jerk ideological reactions in order to view the parallels dispassionately and with any degree of objectivity, and thereby learn something?

At 5:41 PM, June 23, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Is there another level to it? Sure!

We could corelate President Bush's words "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," to Darth Vader's "You're with me or you're my enemy."

In defence of Lucas he might well have been referring to Hitler’s "Ver is nicht mit uns ist gegen uns," roughly interpreted as "who is with us is not against us," or even the words of Jesus who said "he who is not with me is against me" (Luke 23:11) and "whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:50)

It is more likely however as Q implied, that living in a post 9/11 world should make the words of George W Bush top of mind, and not those of Hitler or Jesus.

The following CNN news article seems to confirm that.

As Lucas says "that although he wrote the original film during the Vietnam War, his six-part saga could apply to the war in Iraq . . . 'In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship,'"

In regards to his denial of a political under-theme we all know Lucas is as good a marketer as a film maker. I’m not sure this is not another very good example, because even Republicans go to the movies.

At 10:10 PM, June 24, 2005, Blogger Carolyn said...

While watching the movie, I honestly hadn't considered the parallels between Anakin and Bush...although I spend much of my time comparing George W. to various evils that come to my mind (damn, that comment probably just put me on some sort of list, where I'll be monitored carefully and arrested when deemed too much of a threat).

I think another part of me strives not to see those obvious parallels while watching a movie for entertainment because a great deal of my time is spent trying to make the best out of situations that Bush has bungled (ie. cutting HIV funding, watching my clients die because of it, him only funding abstinence-based programs, him cutting medicaid, etc.).

In SWIII, it does emphasize a very us against them approach to diplomacy...much like the strong Americentric views that are rampant.

When I was in Ireland last year, they were shocked that I admitted to being an American travelling outside the US...and it was also widely known that only 14% of Americans have passports (although to be travel outside the US is fairly expensive, financially challenged individuals have little chance of seeing outside the US, Mexico, or Canada).

American society is fed a message of fear, mostly fear of those that are different than us, or think differently. We're under constant "terror alerts" created by our government and media to control us, to make us rely on the government for protection. SWIII had similar messages...although Hitler, Vietnam, etc. did also. Which makes me agree that history does repeat itself...and I see this Bush situation going down a sad, sick road. I would love to see him challenged and out of power, but for the most part, knowing that it won't happen, I'm patiently awaiting completion of his term so we can move on to a better time in American politics.

At 4:11 AM, June 25, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...


I appreciate your thoughtful opinions and analysis. It is refreshing.

At 9:36 AM, June 25, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mary P. asks, can viewers overcome their knee-jerk ideological reactions?

I don't know how you jar people out of their ideological ruts — sometimes I fear that it's impossible to do so. I think we should use every tool in the tool box to make people think objectively. Lucas's approach to movie-making is one such approach, and a good one.

• Bill — thanks for that Lucas quote, "one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship". Whatever Lucas's political position may be, the question is important and relevant.

• Carolyn writes, a great deal of my time is spent trying to make the best out of situations that Bush has bungled (ie. cutting HIV funding, watching my clients die because of it, him only funding abstinence-based programs, him cutting medicaid, etc.)

I appreciate your comment, coming from the front lines as it does. It's tough enough to do social work at the best of times — the problems have no end and there's never enough funding — but politicians who curry the favour of religious fundamentalists must increase the frustration level exponentially.

Funny that. I thought George Bush was opposed to religious fundamentalism.

• Jack — Thanks for the affirmation! I strive to keep my head when all around me are losing theirs.

Not all, of course. You provide balanced analysis on your blog, too. But there are a lot of ideologues out there, as Mary P. points out.


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