Pop Culture

‘Star Wars’ exerts force in earthly politics

A year after Michael Moore weighed into the 2004 presidential campaign with “Fahrenheit 9/11,” both sides of America’s partisan divide are debating the political messages of a far different movie — “Star Wars.”

Even before it opened in theaters last week, some observers were drawing unflattering parallels between the story of interplanetary treachery in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” and the Bush administration’s war on terror and its decision to invade Iraq.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas has insisted that his themes of corrupted democracy and the rise of a fear-mongering tyrant were outlined decades ago, informed by Watergate and the Vietnam era, as well as Hitler’s rise to power, rather than today’s politics.

But that has not stopped liberals and conservatives alike from reading anti-Bush metaphors into the film and its dialogue.

Anakin Skywalker, the troubled young Jedi falling under the influence of the “dark side,” warns his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” — reminding many of Bush’s post-Sept. 11 declaration: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Likewise singled out as a jab at Republican ambitions is the line uttered by Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) as the galactic senate cedes power to the evil Emperor Palpatine: “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

Last week, as the film opened, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn PAC launched an ad campaign seizing on “Star Wars” imagery to depict Senate Republican leader Bill Frist as Darth Vader’s villainous mentor, Darth Sidious, in his showdown with Democrats over judicial nominations.

Washington decoded?“People already know that checks and balances are a core part of the American system,” said Ben Brandzel of MoveOn PAC. “But when you put it in terms that are as clear as the ’Star Wars’ story, it helps people decode what is going on in Washington.”

For its part, the Republican National Committee shrugged off comparisons to “Star Wars.”

“It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, but if you look at the last few elections, the force has been with the Republicans,” party spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt told Reuters. “And I would add that we’re not taking our cues from Darth Vader, C-3PO or Yoda.”

Nevertheless, the response of some conservatives has been so angry that one Web site called Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood recently added Lucas to its list of enemies.

But Paul Levinson, a communications and media scholar at Fordham University in New York, disagreed with the analysis of “Revenge of the Sith” as an anti-Republican diatribe.

Instead, he saw the film in terms that Bush supporters could rally around — a cautionary tale about the menace posed by evil if not fully eradicated, as in the resurgence of Darth Vader after his inconclusive battle with Obi-Wan.

Applied to current events, he said, the message could be: “When we’re confronting terrorism we have to do more than wound it — we have to completely annihilate it ... because if even one drop of it survives, it could regain its power and do us enormous damage again.”

Levinson said the politicization of “Star Wars” reflects the highly charged partisan climate that persists in the aftermath of last year’s bitterly fought presidential contest.

In the absence of an overtly political film like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore’s scathing anti-Bush documentary, “people are seizing on something that has some political content and making the most of it.”

While the 2004 election returned George W. Bush to the White House, “it did not in any way bring the competing parts of American culture into any kind of harmony,” Levinson added. “So what was going on up until the election is continuing. It’s just being fought out in different ways.”