All art is propaganda, at least according to George Orwell’s aphorism, but not if Disney’s CEO has anything to say about it. Days before the release of Rogue One, the first spinoff of the company’s prized Star Wars universe, Bob Iger took it upon himself to make something clear. “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film,” he told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s premiere. “There are no political statements in it, at all.” Take a seat, George—is the first truly apolitical film finally upon us?
Of course not. Rogue One leans into the broad political strokes that George Lucas set out when initially creating Star Wars in 1977. It’s a tale of rebellion against a totalitarian government, of guerrilla fighters striking a blow against uniform regiments of stormtroopers and the brutal dictator they serve. The idea that such sentiments would be remotely controversial is indicative of just how much the 2016 election has seeped into every aspect of pop culture, whether Iger likes it or not. Rogue One is a tale of good guys and bad guys, just as Star Wars always has been. Disney’s fear is that some audience members might think they’re being lumped in with the losing side.
This particular storm in a teacup was prompted by a (now-deleted) tweet from the Rogue One screenwriter Chris Weitz, who called the Empire a “white supremacist (human) organization” and has repeatedly voiced his opposition to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Weitz later apologized for “connecting an innocent escape to ugly politics,” but momentum built after a Twitter user spread the false rumor that Rogue One had been rewritten to add “anti-Trump” scenes. It was the kind of low-level viral absurdity that trends online partly because so many social-media users begin to mock it, but the resulting fuss was enough to prompt denials from Weitz and Iger.
What was more absurd was Iger’s bizarre phrasing—the idea that Rogue One was not “in any way” political. One assumes he meant that at no point does the film’s hero Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) deliver a treatise against Trump’s electoral platform, nor are any X-Wings spotted sporting “I’m With Her” bumper stickers. But the film certainly has a more forceful edge to it than last year’s Star Wars entry The Force Awakens (which was also subject to a bogus online boycott). Set right before Lucas’s original 1977 film, Rogue One depicts the Empire at its most brutal, a militaristic police state intent on suppressing dissent with its new “super-weapon,” the Death Star (which Erso and her team is trying to sabotage).
All of these elements—the Empire, the bold saboteurs, the Death Star, the villainous Darth Vader—appeared in the 1977 Star Wars, and at no point was a studio executive called on to assure audiences that their politics would not be decried onscreen. Lucas talks about how the Empire is a stand-in for Nazi Germany on his Empire Strikes Back DVD commentary, but his more recent Star Wars entries were more nakedly political. In 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as the evil Emperor seizes power by declaring a state of emergency, the hero Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) remarks, “So this is how liberty dies ... with thunderous applause.” Later, as he turns to the Dark Side, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) rants, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!”
Lucas was up-front at the time about the parallels between the final prequel film and the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “We were just funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction,” he said at Revenge of the Sith’s premiere. “The parallels between Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.” He then added, “As you go through history, I didn’t think it was going to get quite this close. So it’s just one of those recurring things ... Maybe the film will waken people to the situation.”
There were the same vague murmurings of a boycott at the time (the film, as with all Star Wars films, was a huge hit). But the difference between Lucas’s public dissent and Iger’s resolute denial of any political slant is stark, especially since the former was directed at a sitting president, while Rogue One’s controversy was sparked by the mere notion of denouncing “white supremacy.” Put the viral threats of boycotts aside—Rogue One will make hundreds of millions of dollars in its opening week, as these blockbusters always do. It’s that shift toward the apolitical that seems the most depressing, even if it’s for the sake of commerce rather than art.
Anyone can still read whatever they want into Rogue One, of course; Iger is simply denying the idea that the film was made with any anti-Trump intent. But there’s perhaps nothing more telling about the tricky rhetorical line he’s trying to walk than his remarks about the film’s cast. An underlying thread to the online unease about Rogue One also has to do with its diverse cast (which, outside of the villains, is made up largely of actors of color) and the gender of its lead hero. Iger acknowledged that, saying the film “has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all.” In short, Rogue One deserves to be celebrated, but only if that celebration is entirely divorced from anything that might give reason to offend. Ironically, by insisting on the neutrality of the film, Iger ignored another fact: Declaring that something isn’t political is, in itself, political.