Sunday, May 29, 2005

Michael: The Politics of Star Wars "The Return of the Sith"

This isn’t a review. This is an analysis of the main theme of "The Return of the Sith" and it contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, I strongly recommend reading no further until you do.

The spine of the movie is Anakin Skywalker’s quest to be the most powerful Jedi ever. He is supposed to have convinced himself that the reason he wants that power is to save Padme from dying in childbirth, which he sees in a Force vision. He had been unable to save his mother from death at the hands of the Tusken Raiders in II, and is determined not to be helpless to save his loved one again. But saving Padme doesn’t work as the real reason Anakin turned to the dark side, despite his constant avowals of purpose in his dialog.

That motivation is not only implausible, but it provides a central contradiction of the film (it doesn't resonate with common sense enough to be considered irony). Anakin’s turn to the dark side in search of the power to save Padme is what causes the death of Padme in childbirth. There was nothing physically wrong with her. She died of a broken heart, broken by Anakin’s horrific betrayal of all their love had stood for. Here we encounter a circularity too common in uncanny plot devices used in science fiction; Anakin’s ability to have the visions is what causes the event in the visions; he wouldn’t be seeking greater power to save her had he not had the visions, and thus she would not have died but for the visions. Saving Padme is a somewhat gimmicky and ironic cover for Anakin’s real motive for his journey to the dark side: politics.

Anakin Skywalker doesn’t turn to the dark side for love, he does so because he stops believing the Jedi order is pursuing the public good and begins to believe that order and peace can only be brought to the galaxy by one strong enough and wise enough - the Emperor Sidious. After the disgusting slaughter of the younglings at the Jedi Temple, Anakin meets Padme:

PADME: Anakin, what are you going to do?

ANAKIN looks down for a moment and then walks away from Padme.

ANAKIN: I will not betray the Republic . . . my loyalties lie with the Chancellor and with the Senate . . . and with you.

Anakin’s prime concern is politics, and only secondarily Padme. He’s still (willfully) fooling himself and Padme that the Republic still exists. He knows that the Chancellor is a Sith Lord bent upon overthrow of the Republic, and he now supports that goal. He has begun to actively deceive Padme, something he would not have done before, because he knows that her politics are no longer the same as his own. The conflict threatens to break out into the open, but Anakin sidesteps the issue with a veiled threat:

ANAKIN: The Republic is unstable, Padme. The Jedi aren't the only ones trying to take advantage of the situation. There are also traitors in the Senate.

PADME stands and reacts ever so slightly.

PADME: What are you saying?

ANAKIN: You need to distance yourself from your friends in the Senate. The Chancellor said they will be dealt with when this conflict is over.

PADME: What if they start an inquisition? I've opposed this war. What will you do if I become a suspect?

ANAKIN: That won't happen. I won't let it.

PADME: Oh, Anakin, I'm afraid.

ANAKIN takes PADME in his arms.

ANAKIN: Have faith, my love. Everything will soon be set right. The Chancellor has given me a very important mission. The Separatists have gathered in the Mustafar system. I'm going there to end this war. Wait for me until I return . . . things will be different, I promise.

Yes, very different. All possible resistance will be crushed and Padme would have no choice but to acquiesce to the new order. Now, when Padme disobeys Anakin’s direction and seeks Anakin out on Mustafar, Anakin gives her a political manifesto and an ultimatum. Anakin doesn't speak as to somebody you have sacrificed everything to be with, but Padme still speaks the language of love:

PADME: Come away with me. Help me raise our child. Leave everything else behind while we still can. [Padme appeals to their love]

ANAKIN: Don't you see, we don't have to run away anymore. I have brought peace to the Republic. I am more powerful than the Chancellor. I can overthrow him, and together you and I can rule the galaxy. Make things the way we want them to be. [Anakin counters with a political ultimatum; interestingly, the exact one that he will give to his son in Episode V "The Empire Strikes Back"]

PADME: I don't believe what I'm hearing . . . Obi-Wan was right. You've changed. [she means his politics have changed]

ANAKIN: I don't want to hear any more about Obi-Wan. The Jedi turned against me. Don't you turn against me. [any political disagreement has become a rebuke, which trumps any personal relationship]

PADME: I don't know you anymore. Anakin, you're breaking my heart. I'll never stop loving you, but you are going down a path I can't follow. [because it would betray her politics, not her heart]

This film sets in place the keystone of the entire story arc of Star Wars. The entire six film cycle is the story of the political birth and maturation and denouement of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Anakin’s political philosophy is formed by the circumstances of his youth on the edge of the Republic as a powerless slave. As he grows in power, he first serves, and finally questions and betrays the Republic, destroying it. He then passes through the same pattern of service and disillusionment with Empire. His political worldview and its evolution drive the entire plot round a full circle. ‘Return of the Sith’ is the axis around which Anakin’s political identity revolves. The deep structure of the plot is the willing, even eager, transformation of Anakin from a bulwark of freedom and justice, into the willing tool of tyranny and injustice.

The film’s lack of genuine emotional resonance is the main reason that the story is not engaging for many who see "Sith" expecting something more. The purported justification for Anakin’s turn to the dark side, love for his wife and unborn children, doesn’t ring true. He must know that certain assumptions about his personal character underpin Padme’s love; no love is truly unconditional. The Anakin Skywalker she loves is a selfless, if tempestuous, hero who upholds the ethical traditions of the Jedi Order. She could never be with a man who slaughters innocent children for political ends.

The depth of self-deception required for Anakin to sidestep this self-knowledge is beyond the bounds of human experience. Believing their love could survive his betrayal of the Republic is a stretch no one can accept short of Anakin’s actual mental illness. Lucas pushes us to accept the Anakin is in a deeply delusional state by presenting us with his belief that the Jedi are evil, and that he’s saving the Republic instead of ending it, and with scene 190 on Mustafar in which Anakin reveals his still sensitive soul by shedding a tear after having murdered all the Separatists on Mustafar (but not after the children at the Jedi temple, apparently). But Anakin’s supposed self-deception is undercut at every turn and ultimately appears self-serving.

In the end there is only one conclusion that makes any sense, Anakin turned himself into Darth Vader willingly for one reason only - political power. And only one brand of loyalty remained in his value system - "If you're not with me, you're my enemy" - the absolute kind. Anakin’s destruction of the Republic, the Jedi Order, and Padme, was not the tragic consequences of an misguided, but loving, obsession. The damage he wrought was to seize political power, all else was intentional deception, or willing self-deception.

Anakin/Vader’s political philosophy is essentially Platonic, expressing the same complaints about democracy as Plato, and settling upon many of the same solutions as does Plato in the ‘Republic’ and the ‘Politicus’ dialogs: the wise king (emperor) who is above all law, the aristocracy of philosophers (Sith lords), and the limited utility of democracy to fashioning policy (the rubber stamp Galactic Senate). Lucas’s vision would have been dark indeed if his films stopped here. But we know that eventually even Darth Vader loses faith in his chosen idol, and clears the path for a brighter tomorrow with his own hand. In the end, the political manifesto of Star Wars might be summed up as ‘don’t put too much faith in any political order’. Regardless of how people are organized what is important is justice, equality, openness, participation, accountability, and a struggle against harmful absolutisms. Ultimately, it was the lack of those virtues that threw both the Republic and the Empire onto the rocks of history at the hand of Anakin/Vader.

Finally, some have claimed that "Sith" is a partisan political attack on the Bush Administration. It’s not that at all; it was written, in broad outline, well in advance of the political ascendency of the extreme Right and Bush. It is a commentary on a political attitude and set of beliefs that reduce human freedom and dignity, and what those beliefs cost their acolytes. If the extreme Right see something of themselves in the film, that is due to their own conscience, not the film’s rhetoric. Indeed, I would guess that the Right will tend to stay very carefully quiet about any supposed criticism of the Bush Administration in the film in an effort not to draw more attention to any possible political critique as culturally powerful as the Star Wars franchise has become.


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