Rebellions may be built on hope, but they’re only effective when paired with action.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for Rogue One abound throughout this piece. I’m talking “ending of the movie” level spoilers, here. If you have yet to see Rogue One, turn back now.
“Don’t worry! Trump will withdraw before the year’s out!”
“Don’t worry! There’s no way that he’ll actually win the Republican Primary!”
“Don’t worry! When he gets to the debates, everybody will see Trump for who he really is and he’ll crash and burn!”
“Don’t worry! This pussy tape is definitely going to be the end of him, now!”
“Don’t worry! There is still absolutely no way that he can possibly win the election, even though he still somehow hasn’t gone down in popularity or been forced to withdraw yet!”
And so the cycle went over and over during the election trail. Every single time Donald Trump would do, well, anything, political pundits and White liberals would bend over backwards to argue that THIS TIME Trump was finished. THIS was where his seemingly endless supply of luck was going to come to a screeching halt. It had to. There was no way that a buffoon this openly hateful, this imbecilic, this full of empty macho bluster could keep up the act and ride it all the way to the White House. This was an anomaly, a brief moment, we could get our laughs and then, eventually, the great American public would drop him like Eamon’s record label and we could all move on to celebrating America’s first female President.
I was part of that chorus for a while, I’m not going to lie. As much of my final year of university went on in my personal foreground to this mess, I and many of my more politically-inclined friends would all take turns laughing in disbelief at what was unfolding overseas and reassuring each other that there was no way that Trump could make it to the debates, or to the Republican nomination, or to the White House. I, however, stopped my part in that chorus dead in its tracks when the EU Referendum results came in. Suddenly, not only was anything possible, but the full weight and full reach of this new resurgent wave of fascism had made itself startlingly and horrifyingly clear. Brexit was not an anomaly, Trump was not going to be an anomaly, this was becoming a part of the mainstream and it was going to be legitimised by the year’s end.
Whilst I and the vast majority of my friends (who are basically all liberal to some degree) stood around snarking about its impossibility in this allegedly more enlightened age, fascism returned. Because, of course, fascism – and the rampant racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia that comes with it – never truly leaves. It doesn’t magically die off when everybody old from times when such things were wrongly considered socially acceptable do. It merely retreats to the fringes, building up steam, preying on the dissatisfaction of bitter cis straight White people angry over a perceived loss of privileges and rights, relying on the complacency of liberals and progressives fighting for change. That, when it makes its grand return, we do nothing more than try and get fascism to meet us on our level, normalising it, implanting the implication that these are people and ideas worthy of nuanced debate, that this kind of pure hatred is normal, acceptable. Then it takes root in our culture, worms its way into impressionable minds susceptible to its ideas, rebrands itself with more-acceptable phrases like “alt-right,” and before any of us started to know it, it’s everywhere and it’s seemingly unstoppable.
For that is how fascism works. It rises from complacency. From those with the power to stop it, to combat it, to fight it shrugging it off as merely a nuisance or, worse, a joke that doesn’t concern them. Those who were or are victim to this hate speech, of course, are never surprised by the sheer level to which fascism grows, because they know that, when the going gets tough, nobody else is going to have their back; their back is barely even had when things are in more of a lull-period. Their cries won’t be heard or fully understood until it’s too late. This is how Trump happened, this is how Brexit happened, this is how Putin’s Russia has reached the point that it has, this is how the latest far-right wave has swept through the European continent.
The only way to combat it is to fight. To really fight. To not just contest it at every step of the way, but to shut it down wholesale at every opportunity. To not try and meet it in the middle and try to understand their “economic anxiety” or whatever the fuck bullshit language we are using to try and normalise this crap, for this new wave didn’t extend us the same courtesy when Obama first swept his way to office in a landslide. No, we have to fight. Yet this is a concept that those with the power to do so are, at best, reticent to entertain. “When they go low, we go high,” is admirable in theory, but it doesn’t exactly do much in practice when the incoming President-Elect is plotting open Muslim registries and promising deportations of three million “criminal illegals” as soon as he takes office. Mass protests against this stuff are denounced by apparent pillars of the Leftist community, as if this somehow makes us no better than those terrorists who shoot up Black churches or gay nightclubs, whilst our exiting President chooses to make a peaceful transition, to lay down and accept the inevitable.
Last week, the Left pinned its hopes on the Electoral College somehow doing the exact opposite of what it was going to do as the last-ditch hope to stop Trump. They’ve rabidly eaten up the news that Russia tampered with the election as if it’s the smoking gun required to close the case for good, conveniently ignoring that this doesn’t magically dispel the fascist wave and normalising language and coverage that ensured Trump’s support in the first place. And, of course, there’s been more continued infighting between those who believe that the Left needs to evolve and fight for the true tenants of progressivism, and those who would rather find any other excuse for Clinton’s loss and bicker with their supposed allies than actually do anything. But overall, there’s a seeming belief that some kind of miracle will be beamed down from upon high to save us all on our behalf.
That, of course, is not how rebellion against fascism works. Magic cure-alls do not arrive fully-formed to blow fascism away in one fowl swoop. Hatred and oppression and fascism don’t dispel if you ask them politely enough to do so. No, to combat fascism, to truly stop or stem or slow its advance, requires action. Active action. It requires people willing to get their hands dirty, willing to play the game, willing to risk great personal sacrifice at every level, and, yes, sometimes even willing to resort to a little violence to get the job done. It requires force, persistence, and an acceptance and willingness to put oneself in harm’s way. History – or, at least, cis White “socially-acceptable” history – may remember the diplomats, the talkers, and the peace-advocators, but that History is only possible because of those willing to roll their sleeves up, get a little dirty, and sequester themselves in the apparent grey area that nobody else is willing to go near.
This is where Rogue One situates itself. Much of the Original Trilogy of Star Wars films tended to steer away from the large-scale idea of War and the nitty-gritty of such, outside of one large-scale setpiece per film, in favour of more personal tales of the most important faces of the Rebellion – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, the redemptive arc of smuggler Han Solo into full-blown hero, and the villainous personifications of all the evil that The Empire wreaks upon the galaxy of Darth Vader and Darth Sidious. These are the stories and characters that would be passed down through time, the reductive and heavily-simplified versions that recognise the faces of the War and few else. They’re the ones that strip out the moral ambiguity, the sacrifices and efforts made by others that allowed them to make the grand actions that go down in the history books. In a way, the Original Trilogy acts as the condensed, simplified, crash-course history lesson of a large-scale war or event you get taught in Middle School of its own Wars.
Rogue One still aims for the personal view – key word there being “aims” as, like all of Gareth Edwards’ other films, the script underserves much of the cast and is more than a little too emotionally cold to properly work – but is now affording it to the fringes of the Rebellion rather than its faces. Few of the good guys in the Original Trilogy act in a way that couldn’t be seen as completely morally justifiable, without at least a majority support of the rest of the rebellion behind them. In Rogue One, Cassian is introduced murdering an informant in cold blood to keep the Rebellion from being compromised in any way, and that’s just for starters. This is a story about those who don’t get to be a part of the history books, who do out of desperation what is necessary to combat fascism and are rewarded for their efforts by being shunned by those who would rather take “the high road” and airbrushed out of the narrative because they don’t fit the simple “good/bad” paradigm that most history is boiled down to when we retell it.
The fact is that rebellion is hard. It is a constant, never-ending, demoralising struggle, where every little scrap of progress gained from railing against the oppressive status quo can feel like a tremendous victory… until one realises that the fight is nowhere near over and that said progress is still just a tiny improvement in the grand scheme of things. Every victory is a victory, an indication of some kind of positive change, but their infrequency and the sheer hopelessness that arises from the number of failures that buffer those victories can somewhat understandably lead to many feeling like their rebellion does not matter, that it is hopeless, and that it is better to get out on that high than continue toiling in the trenches. It can lead to a fractured rebellion rather than a united front, one spent squabbling amongst itself and denouncing its more committed idealists as fringe extremists, whilst others look to bargain with their oppressors in the hopes that they can save their own skins. All the while, the oppressors grow stronger because fascism doesn’t care about “the high road” and it doesn’t care about the methods required to secure its power.
This is the kind of Rebel Alliance that Rogue One ends up depicting. Its nature as a direct prequel to A New Hope necessitates that, but even still what’s most striking, particularly given the current climate, is just how willing the film is to show the dangers of a disorganised, fractured, and self-serving resistance upon the galaxy. As we join the film, the rebellion is splintered – lying to the faces of prospective recruits; having conflicting goals and missions that result in deadly miscommunication; and decidedly uninterested in helping more outer-rim planets, instead leaving them to fend for themselves in more extreme methods. Crucially, it never properly unifies even up to the bitter end. When Jyn returns with news of the Death Star and where they can get the plans to destroy it, even giving the kind of rousing speech that usually precedes the “you have my sword” moment, rather than rally behind her, the various factions of the rebellion instead choose to bicker. Some choose to see the info as further evidence that rebellion is hopeless, some balk at the idea of undertaking a mission with any kind of risk, others can only worry about how it will affect themselves, whilst others still call everybody out on their shit, before the whole thing ends with the idea being shot down.
Ultimately, what Rogue One deems the true enemy of progress and rebellion, far more so than planet-killing death rays or all-powerful Sith overlords, are those who give up on rebellion yet deign to judge those who also refuse to do so. For Rogue One demonstrates unequivocally that rebellion is possible at every aspect. It may be difficult, and it may involve having to do what can seem like the wrong thing in order to ultimately serve the greater good, but it is always possible and rebellions lose the second they forget that. From more obvious actions like rejecting official non-intervention decrees to go and fight, or putting yourself in harm’s way when you know that you won’t make it back because it’s the right and only thing to do; to Galen’s long con of secretly building a weakness into a supposedly indestructible superweapon, having to appear like he’s selling out his principles and lie to everyone because he knows that nobody else would take the risk for whatever reason. These are all linked by one thing: action.
Action is what drives effective rebellion. Action is what effectively combats fascism. Despite the insistence of moral superiority by always taking “the high road,” true progress is made by those willing to lay the foundation for taking “the high road” by getting down in the dirt and engaging in a knock down drag out fight with their oppressors. Sometimes, this can blur the line between rebellion and terrorism – I think it’s no coincidence that the ambush on Jedha carries visual iconography from both Nazi-Occupied France in World War II and American-Occupied Iraq from the mid-2000s – which is worthy of some debate and discussion, but at least they are doing something! Saw Gerrera’s men were pushed to the edge and decided to resist being thrown over that cliff, which is more than one can say for much of the Rebel Council.
This is why the final 40 or so minutes of Rogue One are so powerful and so especially cathartic given the horrendous twelve months we have all just gotten through. It’s more than just a band of rebels yelling “screw the rules, I’m doing what’s right,” it’s a film depicting this kind of unwavering, fearless action against oppressive fascism and agreeing wholeheartedly that it’s what is necessary going forward. Rebellion involves people willing to risk everything, to put themselves in harm’s way because they know that it is the right thing to do, effectively embracing whatever their ultimate fate may be with open arms. It’s there when Rogue One first touches down on Scarif, it’s there when an offshoot of the Rebel Alliance joins them above planetary orbit to provide backup, it’s there as our cast are mowed down one by one, and it’s most beautifully there as Jyn and Cassian embrace each other whilst the shockwave from the Death Star’s shot barrels towards them.
But the film then keeps going for another five minutes for maybe it’s most powerful sequence. Most have focussed on watching Vader carve his way through entire garrisons of rebels like the immensely terrifying force-of-nature that he is, but that distracts from the real power of the scene. The film keeps going after Jyn and company have all been killed not just because they are ultimately bit players in a story grander than themselves, but to show that they are not exceptions. They went on a suicide mission, one that was near-impossible anyway and which everybody involved knew they weren’t getting back from alive, because they knew that it was the right thing to do. And that same selfless sacrifice is on display as the rebels try desperately to get the data away from Vader. Witness the exact moment where the rebel trying to force open the door realises that the data is worth more than his own life and instead hands it over to somebody who can do something at the cost of himself.
The enemy of effective rebellion against the encroaching power and influence of fascism, Rogue One argues, is not the consequences visited upon those who rebel by those who are in power, but those who refuse to recognise the necessity of action, sacrifice, and violence. Those who lecture the people protesting, the ones willing to get themselves thrown in jail or worse, as extremists who are no better than the fascists in power. Those who believe that reasoning with a power that has absolutely no interest in reason or compromise is the only acceptable form of rebellion. Rogue One understands that rebellion and progress, true rebellion and true progress, are only possible as a result of two factions: those who embrace action and sacrifice even if it means resorting to violence, and those who understand that fact and get the hell out of the former group’s way.
Callie Petch flies them up and lets their body sprinkle down.