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At the Saturday premiere of the latest Star Wars film, “Rogue One,” Disney chief executive Bob Iger offered a curious reading of the upcoming movie. This entry to the behemoth science fiction franchise was not political, he said. At all.
“Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” Iger said to the Hollywood Reporter. “There are no political statements in it, at all.” He added that he was “very proud” of the diversity of the cast but that, too, was “not a political statement, at all.”
Iger was eager to play down political tensions in a fictional far-off galaxy because he had been asked to respond to an all-too-real boycott percolating through social media: Dump Star Wars. “I think the whole story has been overblown and, quite frankly, it’s silly,” Iger said to the Hollywood Reporter. “I have no reaction to [this] story at all.”
The film’s ending was reshot to undermine President-elect Donald Trump, according to boycotters. Disney poured millions of dollars into the movie to give “Rogue One” subliminal, anti-Trump messages. If you voted for Trump, well, the minds behind Disney’s Star Wars hated you.
Like many Star Wars stories before it, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” centers on an outgunned band of heroes who fight the jackbooted forces of oppression, the evil Galactic Empire. “The Empire’s agents are everywhere,” said the Associated Press, shown a 28-minute preview of the film, “with stormtroopers roaming the streets searching for dissidents.”
The Disney chief was only partially correct. Perhaps the Dump Star Wars story could be described as “silly.” But to deny the politics of Star Wars is to throw the franchise’s rich history under a bus the size of an Imperial cruiser. Star Wars may not overflow with civics metaphors in the fashion of “Star Trek,” but the sci-fi films did not exist in a political void.
Beneath the special effects wizardry and heroic journeys hide Vietnam references, Charles Lippincott, who worked with Star Wars creator George Lucas on the first film, told The Washington Post in 1977. The movie “is so transplanted that most people have no realization that part of it is about a Vietnam situation,” he said. (Viewed through this lens, The Post wrote at the time, the Death Star trench run evokes the air battles above Hanoi and Haiphong.)
Echoes of Vietnam exist within “Rogue One,” according to director Gareth Edwards. “Stylistically, what we gravitated toward was trying to make it feel as real as possible,” Edwards recently told Vulture. “One of the experiments we did early in San Francisco was we took images of Vietnam and Middle East conflicts and World War II and we literally just photoshopped rebel clothes over the soldiers.”
It is evident in the little details of Star Wars, not only the plot. John Mollo, a costumer, referred to Nazi helmets and World War I trench armor while designing Darth Vader’s wardrobe. The soldiers of the Empire, called Stormtroopers, are a reference to the World War I German assault troops called sturmtruppen.
In 2005, critics hailed “Revenge of the Sith,” as the most political Star Wars film to date. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that George Lucas had created “comprehensible political context” for the first time, particularly in a scene where Padmé, a senator of the Galactic Republic played by Natalie Portman, witnessed the rise of the evil Palpatine’s empire. Scott wrote:
This is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause, Padmé observes as senators, their fears and dreams of glory deftly manipulated by Palpatine, vote to give him sweeping new powers. “Revenge of the Sith” is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan’s response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes.”
(Some defend the politics of the Empire. Where the peace-loving Jedi failed, the “Empire can genuinely claim to be bringing order and rightness to the Galaxy,” wrote Richard B. Spencer in an article titled “The Fash [as in fascism] Awakens.”)
More recently, a pair of tweets tinged with galactic politics triggered the anti-Star Wars boycott. In November, the Friday after the election of Donald Trump, “Rogue One” writer Chris Weitz tweeted, “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” Fellow screenwriter Gary Whitta replied, “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.”
The tweet was deleted, but the sentiment was not lost on some Trump supporters. On Dec. 8, two days before the “Rogue One” premiere in Los Angeles, President Obama’s half-brother Malik Obama tweeted, “Boycott Star Wars people!” adding, #DumpStarWars. The rallying hashtag originated with Trump supporter Jack Posobiec, a special projects director of the group Citizens for Trump, and spread throughout right-wing Twitter to the alt-right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.
From there, however, misinformation about “Rogue One” bubbled through Twitter like so much Dagobah swamp gas. “Writers of new Star Wars said people who vote for Trump support Hitler,” tweeted Mike Cernovich, a self-avowed “American nationalist” who has used his popular social media account to voice concerns about Hillary Clinton’s neurological health and a Clinton-run pedophile ring in Washington. “If you still give them your money,” Cernovich said, “shameful.”
That a Hollywood blockbuster had a fake, thinly veiled liberal agenda was not an original argument. The 2012 Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” featured a muscular, anesthesia-huffing villain named Bane, played by Tom Hardy. To talk show host Rush Limbaugh, it was no small thing that Bane was a homophone for Bain Capital, the investment firm that Mitt Romney helped found in 1984.
The radio host insinuated that the creators of the film chose Bane to sow confusion among supporters of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, as The Post noted in 2012. “The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release date’s been known, summer 2012 for a long time,” he said. “Do you think that it is accidental, that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?”
Limbaugh continued, “And they’re going to hear ‘Bane’ in the movie, and they are going to associate Bain. And the thought is that when they start paying attention to the campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, not Bain Capital, but Bain, Romney and Bain, that these people will think back to the Batman movie.” (Director Christopher Nolan selected Bane long before Romney clinched the Republican nomination in May of 2012. To the Los Angeles Times in December 2011, Nolan said he chose the physically-imposing Bane as a departure from Batman’s previous foe — the anarchic Joker.)
The covert transformation of “Rogue One” into anti-Trump subliminal propaganda had as much merit as Limbaugh’s Batman claim. Although “Rogue One” had a series of reshoots, those wrapped by mid-summer, long before Election Day. Disney confirmed to The Wrap that rumors of anti-Trump alterations were untrue.
So much of Star Wars reflects what has come before — Luke Skywalker walked a hero’s journey worn by Odysseus; Lucas used several filming techniques, like his screen-wipe transitions, as homages to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”; 2015’s “The Force Awakens” had a very similar plot, some said, to its 40-year-old precursor. And the franchise has been boycotted before, too. When “The Force Awakens” was released with a diverse cast, with prominent roles given to the actress Daisy Ridley and black actor John Boyega, a social media movement decried the film as “anti-white.”
It does not appear that anyone involved with “The Force Awakens” lost much sleep over the boycott. Not adjusted for inflation, the film set a record $936 million domestically and would go on to gross more than $2 billion worldwide. And the latest boycott may prove similarly ineffective. Based on early ticket sales, “Rogue One” was projected to earn more than $130 million when it opens this weekend.