–MAJOR ROGUE ONE SPOILERS AHEAD–
Rogue One is a movie about many things, but one of the most obvious things is that it’s a movie about the Death Star plans, the building of the Rebellion, and the start of the Galactic Civil War that we otherwise call the Star Wars original trilogy. The main villain is the architect of the Death Star, the heroine starts as the daughter of the Death Star’s designer and ends the film as the designer of the Rebellion itself. But there’s more to the movie than that. Rogue One, though ostensibly a war film, ends up being a very political film about the people who built the two sides of the war, and the people who fight it.
The actors involved are political, with the Rebellion led by senators and the Empire led by a politician-turned-monarch. Rogue One gives us fascinating glimpses into how both organizations work, and how they were built by people whose conditions, circumstances, and goals end up changing the face of galactic politics. It’s not just a story about war, but it’s a story about politics, and ultimately, how it’s people that shape both.
Let’s start with the Empire. Orson Krennic is a different type of Imperial villain — he’s alternatively described as an apparatchik and a man of science, a man of the working class who’s not of the well-spoken Coruscanti élite we’re used to (but neither is Tarkin, fine accent and manners or not). What are his goals? Well, he wants to build the Death Star and earn the favor of the Emperor. He’s pretty transparent on that end. But it’s more than that – his entire story in this film is political, as his actions are dictated by his rivalries and intrigues with Tarkin and Vader. There’s almost nothing military about his objectives at all, beyond the surface-level needs to secure the Death Star plans. Yet the conflicts that he, Tarkin, and Vader create in jockeying for power create the circumstances for the galaxy to blaze into warfare.
As for the Rebellion? Goodness, they’ve just formed and already they are fracturing at the seams. Not only are there profound disagreements as to how – or even whether – to engage the Empire, but there are schemes within schemes inside the Alliance command structure. Everyone is convinced that they have to do what’s necessary to save the Alliance, even if it means misleading the other leaders and even if it means doing terrible things. The Alliance is much more like the Empire than it’s willing to admit, as Jyn points out. On the micro scale, the Rogue One crew are as riven by disagreements and as attached to their pasts as the rest of the Alliance – but they find a common purpose.
The Capes of Wrath
Director Orson Callan Krennic is a man of ambitions, and his ambitions shaped the Death Star, the war, and all those involved – including the Ersos. His aspirations famously caused him to run afoul of Darth Vader, who he sees as both a rival and a tool for his struggle to overcome Grand Moff Tarkin and earn an audience with the Galactic Emperor. He himself is shaped by the structure of a Galactic Empire which is biased towards the Coruscanti and Core World élite, where advancement is reserved for those of aristocratic heritage, and where a man of ambition and talent like Krennic runs into natural stumbling blocks. One may become inducted into the Empire’s inner circles by adopting mannerisms similar to the Imperial upper crust – as the provincial Tarkin does – but the volatile and indelicate Krennic is just a bit too outré to belong.
But Krennic is a man of vision, and he demands the attention of the galactic élite. In the predecessor novel Catalyst, we learn how his success in harnessing (one might say misusing and abusing) his friendship with Galen Erso earned the attention of the Imperial Grand Vizier Mas Amedda, which presumably is how Krennic eventually earned his position as Director of Advanced Weapons Research. His battlestation is completed as the film begins, and Tarkin takes it out from under him. The rest of the film involves Krennic trying to secure the battlestation, mostly in order to secure his command of it – and this power struggle is what inadvertently sets off the Galactic Civil War, even as the Death Star was the weapon designed to end the Rebellion in its infancy.
Audiences may be used to seeing the Galactic Empire as a monolith, though it’s not and never has been in the old Expanded Universe. Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to truly demonstrate that. The Empire may appear to be a uniform, mammoth organization where every faceless soldier works in service of the Emperor. The reality is the reality of many autocratic states – whether they’re court-centric monarchies or totalitarian dictatorships (and the Empire is both): there are many jockeying for power and position underneath the monarch, and their goals are necessarily at cross-purposes. The Empire consists of many factions, whether they’re individual players of power politics (whether at the Imperial Court, or trying to enter the Imperial Court, as Krennic is) or whether they’re power blocs or factions (such as the Core World nobility vs the Tarkinist militarists vs the ISB/COMPNOR ideological zealots – a war eventually won by the defeat of the former by the New Republic, and the uniting of the latter two in the First Order). The Emperor, like many autocrats, designed a system where many compete for his favor. While they’re battling each other, they’re too busy to overthrow him. But unfortunately for the Emperor, that also breeds a system where infighting leaves the autocrat’s system vulnerable – and that’s where the Rebels take advantage of the Krennic-Tarkin struggle to learn something about the Death Star, and it is where the Rebels will ultimately win the war after Endor while the Empire tears itself into pieces. But before we get there, let’s talk about those Rebels a bit too.
A Rebellion Built On Hope
The architectural metaphor suggests itself here – Cassian’s line is picked up by Jyn Erso during the meeting of the Alliance Council, where the Rebellion itself truly takes root. Jyn’s speech and – more so – her actions shape the Rebellion. She’s the hope that the team, and the Rebellion, is partly built on. But she doesn’t do it alone – she has allies, in the forms of Mothma and Organa and in the forms of her teammates.
Jyn herself, the heroine of the film, is shaped by other players in the story. The movie takes great pains to show her as her father’s daughter, and does a worse job showing that she’s very much her mother’s daughter as well (we have Catalyst and the Rogue One novelization to help us with that – thanks to Luceno and Freed). Jyn’s shaped by Krennic’s actions in manipulating and hounding her family, denying her a normal childhood as she’s raised and then abandoned by Saw Gerrera. And Jyn in her own right shapes the actions of Galen and Lyra before she knows it, and she certainly shapes the actions of the Rebels during the film. This entire piece could be about Jyn who – like Krennic for the Empire – is the central pivot of this story. The film does a decent job and the novelization does a better job at showing it, but Jyn is both built by and builds up the resistance against the Empire. She finds hope the same way she represents hope to others: through discovering her agency and ability, realizing that she can do something and realizing she’s not a pawn of circumstance. Some have wondered what governs Jyn’s change of heart partway through the film: we think it’s her realization that she can do something about the Death Star.
The Rebellion is much smaller than the Empire, but it’s very complicated in its own right. Composed of multiple cells and factions, they all fail to see eye to eye on how to end the war, or whether it should be fought. The novelization does a great job detailing all the different points of view and the Visual Guide provides many insights, but the film itself sets up the dynamics. There’s the extremists, led by Saw. The opposite wing is exemplified by Senators like Pamlo and Jebel, who prefer negotiation in the Senate and an end to the war without violence. Mothma and Organa are the moderates, and even they differ sharply in their approach to the Rebellion. It’s an Alliance, but it has no real unity – their actions brought them this far, but their actions have almost ripped them apart. Without Jyn, what would they be?
General Draven is Alliance Intelligence. He’s almost a third wheel here – the military just wants to fight, the senators can’t decide what they want, and Draven does his own thing without telling anyone. He’s an interesting character: clearly an ends justify the means sort of person, and someone who’ll take a short term win so long as it’s a win. He goes behind Mothma’s back twice. He’s so goal-oriented that he might be quasi-Imperial in his own right, to echo Jyn’s accusation leveled at Cassian. He practices realpolitik, he’s someone who resembles Cold Warriors and revolutionary pragmatists alike. It’s nice to see Rebels like him, those who fight dirty while the senators keep their robes clean. It adds a sense of reality to the Galactic Civil War. It builds verisimilitude.
Lastly – there’s the Rogue One team itself. Bodhi Rook’s actions started off the whole chain of events, as far as the film is concerned. He finds his own purpose, after Galen tells him that he can. Cassian Andor follows orders, but defies them twice because of the actions of Jyn Erso and a newfound sense of purpose she gives him. Baze Malbus follows his friend Chirrut Îmwe wherever he goes, but finds his faith. Chirrut Îmwe was always a man of faith, but he lost his purpose until Jyn proved herself someone worthy of supporting. Of this lot, Cassian is the only real Rebel – but they’re all rebels and they all were impelled by the actions of the other players in this story. They’re non-political people, engaging in the ultimate political action: the opening moves of a galaxy-wide war.
Many Moving Parts
This is a war film with an ensemble cast, but each of them plays a role that affects the others. Each of them brings their personal journey to the table, and affects each other in turn. Rogue One is not the most character-driven film, but the characters do still drive the story. It takes supplemental material to fully flesh out why – for better or for worse – but the characters’ actions are informed by their histories. They come to the film with stories and they aren’t blank slates.
Yet they’re all smaller pieces of the story. Rogue One set a war in motion, but they’re just two paragraphs in the opening crawl of a larger saga. Orson Krennic thinks that he has reached immortality by creating the Death Star, but he doesn’t realize that he’s just a fly to the likes of Tarkin and lesser still in the eyes of the Emperor. They’re pieces of a larger galactic tapestry, parts of a story involving the crew from Star Wars Rebels, the saga’s Big Three, and eventually involving Rey, Finn, and Poe. But even if they’re small players, their actions had huge consequences. They mattered, and their actions mattered.
Out of universe, these characters didn’t exist before the movie. In universe, their actions aren’t as celebrated as those of others. But the galaxy wouldn’t be the same without them, and the audience won’t view A New Hope the same after this. Rogue One is not only built from many pieces, but it has managed to be both the foundation of and an unobtrusive addition to the structure of the larger original Star Wars trilogy. It fits just right.