In Rogue One, bureaucratic infighting plagues the Empire and the rebellion
The main plot device of the original 1977 film Star Wars is that the rebels have stolen the blueprints for the Empire’s new secret weapon, and have to find a way to capitalize on it before the Empire’s agents catch them. The newest film of the series, Rogue One, is based on a clever concept: it tells the story of how the rebellion got the stolen plans in the first place.
It’s a remarkably well put together story that seamlessly meshes with the 1977 film and manages to be suspenseful despite the audience knowing in advance that the mission to steal the plans will succeed. But this isn’t the place for a movie review. Today is for discussing some of the movie’s observations about politics and motivations.
The audience is shown pieces of bureaucratic infighting within the Empire. Orson Krennic, the director of the “Death Star” project, must coercively obtain the services of the actual engineers and scientists who design the thing. This results in the security breach which drives the plot, as the chief engineer Erso resents being forced to work on the weapon. Krennic thinks that he will obtain the favour of the emperor by successfully producing the weapon—and on the other hand, will face the wrath of the emperor if he fails.
Complicating matters is the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin also wants to be in charge of the weapon. Tarkin needs Krennic to be successful in completing the project, but only in such a way that leaves him, Tarkin, in charge of its use. Tarkin makes sure the weapon works but wants its full power to remain a secret for now. When the test is complete, Tarkin assumes command of the project, blaming Krennic for the security breach.
What’s interesting about this infighting is the lack of trust it reveals.
While Krennick and Tarkin both serve the emperor, they are rivals for what sort of station they occupy under the emperor. (Unfortunately for Krennic, Tarkin’s ally is Darth Vader.) If Krennic hadn’t used coercion on Erso, there wouldn’t have been an obvious way for Tarkin to outmaneuver him, but then it might never have been completed either.
But it’s not just the minions of the evil empire who have trust issues. The rebellion itself turns out to be beset with dissension, infighting, and duplicity. The rebel leadership wants Erso’s daughter to help them, so they promise her a chance to liberate her father from Krennic’s captivity—but in reality they plan to assassinate him, to ensure that the Death Star is not completed. The audience sees the assassin, Andor, killing an informer early in the film, so we take seriously the possibility that he will follow his orders. When it comes to light that Erso has a plan to sabotage the Death Star, the rebel leaders cannot agree on whether to believe it, let alone what to do about it.
That things work out as well as they do depends on several instances of insubordination, and trusting people despite being ordered not to. This suggests that blind obedience to one’s superiors is unlikely to bring about the best outcomes.
When the truth about Erso’s plan is fully realized, the rebel leaders do unite to lend support to our protagonists. Although the film shows that any political association is liable to create trust issues and perverse incentives, it avoids an easy “moral equivalence” argument that the empire and the rebellion are “just the same”—and it’s precisely those moral differences that make it possible for the protagonists to work around those problems and succeed in their task.
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