Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Images of Power Part II: Cold War/GWOT

That's no Death Star, it's a Cold War allegory
Our "Images of Power" mini-series uses Professor Jeffrey A. Hart's "Images of Power in Hollywood Films: The Example of Star Wars" conference paper as a springboard for discussion about the imagery of power in the Star Wars movies. Hart identifies several strains of power-based imagery throughout the Star Wars saga, most of which focus on the conflict between good versus evil. Today, we continue with: Part II: The Cold War/Global War on Terrorism.

Most famously, the Death Stars in the Original Trilogy were allegories for Cold War concerns over technological super weapons, particularly nuclear missiles. Like nuclear weapons, the Death Star could destroy civilizations without soldiers ever meeting face to face. Hart situates the Death Stars within earlier Hollywood Cold War imagery, including Stanley Kubrick's 1962 Dr. Strangelove. Interestingly, Dr. Strangelove was the first to use the "images of B-52s and mushroom clouds"in an anti-Cold War message. Star Wars might have become the most famous science-fiction metaphor about technological superweapons, but it certainly wasn't the first. The Day the Earth Stood Still delivered a strong anti-nuclear message to audiences back in 1951.

In his article, Hart briefly mentions that the Star Wars imagery of good and evil works just as well in the Cold War era as during the Global War on Terrorism (remember, Hart was writing back in 2006). However, I would actually argue that the imagery of power in the Prequels was significantly different from the Original Trilogy in a manner the reflects changes in politics. Thematically the Prequel movies are not so much a trilogy as they are a single film about the failures of democracy, followed by a two films about democracy at war.

The Phantom Menace, debuting in 1999, is imbued with imagery and scenes that could only have been produced during the Clinton presidency and 1990s. Essentially, the Senate's debate over Naboo was a debate over interventionism versus isolationism. The massive Trade Federation invaded its smaller neighbor, Naboo, and committed widespread rights abuses. The Senate ultimately decided to wait until allegations of human rights abuses could be confirmed. However, like many third-world countries today, the affairs of Naboo were only of peripheral interest to most at the political center. In the movie, Naboo is depicted as very far away from Coruscant, so much so that Queen Amidala even has to make a repair stop on Tatooine, the planet farthest from "bright center to the universe" according to Luke Skywalker.

While not as epic as the Cold War, this imagery was very familiar to audiences who followed the debate over intervention in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. So, just as with the Cold War metaphors in 1977, political imagery in The Phantom Menace was relevant in 1999. However, perhaps it was too relevant, but not relevant enough. Unlike foreign interventions abroad, the Cold War hung like a shadow over most Americans. A New Hope tapped into public concern over Cold War tensions. By contrast, The Phantom Menace tapped into Cold War apathy over foreign policy. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was that "it's the economy, stupid" - not foreign policy.

The imagery of political power changed significantly as we transitioned to Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In The Phantom Menace, heroes were young and beautiful while villains were demonic and evil. By contrast, the next two entries in the saga emphasized moral ambiguity. It was no longer clear that the Republic was the "good guy". In 1977, viewers cheered as Luke and Han shot stormtroopers. In 2002, our Jedi heroes were now fighting clone troopers. Lucas appropriated the imagery we had associated with evil, such as white trooper armor and the wedge-shaped Star Destroyers, and associated them with good. Meanwhile, Count Dooku, the Sith with the red lightsaber was the only person to confront the truth about corruption in the Republic and Darth Sidious' hold over the Senate.
RIP Cordé - the only victim of terrorism in the Star Wars films

Whether by coincidence or intent, Attack of the Clones also updated political imagery in a way that reflected rising concerns with terrorism after September 11, 2001 (the movie came out in May 2002, after the attacks but by then principal photography had already been completed). The movie begins with a terrorist attack against Padmé Amidala, now a senator (although only her body double, Cordé, dies). The rest of the movie deals with enemies much murkier than either the Empire or the Trade Federation. Just like terrorists, enemies no longer appeared in plain sight but rather met secretly. Obi-Wan even had to travel outside the galaxy in search of clues. Moreover, like decentralized terror networks, the Confederacy of Independent Systems represents a loose alliance of interests who opposed the Republic, from Dooku to the Trade Federation, from Jango Fett to the Banker's Guild.

Revenge of the Sith took the imagery of moral ambiguity to the next level when the Republic becomes the Empire. We learn that the Empire did not replace the Republic, but rather that they are one and the same. The Republic Senators acquiesces to the genocide against the Jedi  even as Palpatine declares a new Empire. Rather than merely reflect American political trends at the time, for some viewers, the movie seemed like an attack against America's own moral standing. The revelation that the Senate was tricked into war and that clone troopers were involved in human rights abuses seemed to mirror allegations regarding the Iraq War and torture at Abu Ghraib. Of course, the two are not the same and the broader plot outlines for Revenge of the Sith had already been formulated during the 1970s. Nonetheless, Revenge of the Sith does suggest that the line between good and evil, or democracy and fascism, is not nearly as bright as what viewers saw in A New Hope.

So, the question remains: does imagery of power Star Wars reflect real-world politics or does it simply expound upon deeper historical patterns? This of course has become the subject of much debate. However, the political imagery in Star Wars actually evolved dramatically not only between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy, but also between The Phantom Menace and its two successors. Whatever their artistic merit, the prequels were certainly innovative when it came to shattering our preconceived notions about political imagery in Star Wars. 

No comments:

Post a Comment