It Takes a Village to Raise a Darth

In addition to providing a complex, multilayered  story of political intrigue worthy of Shakespeare—or at least Syriana—what George Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels was to transform the focus of the franchise from the quest for truth undertaken by Luke Skywalker into the tragic rise and fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.  The great irony is that while the collective consciousness of millions of filmgoers around the world was shaped and formed by the original trilogy, audiences for the most part rejected the Star Wars prequels in exchange first for the original Matrix (before the sequels utterly destroyed its legacy) and then for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.   The irony lies in the fact that while we are living in perhaps the most ambiguous and complex period in human history, moviegoers eschewed a complex and ambiguous movie series in favor of not one, but two incredibly simplistic morality tales. 

It is not surprising that movie fans prefer Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars trilogy.  In a world in which we are daily promised peace through war, protection of rights through the violation of our rights, and draft dodgers strutting around like war heroes, the easy black and white answers afforded by LOTR is comforting.  But, after all, Lord of the Rings is, like the original Star Wars trilogy, a quest movie and by definition a quest movie must be composed of polar opposites: white versus black, good versus evil, even small versus tall.  There’s simply no room for suggesting that just perhaps there may be such a thing as a propensity to commit evil acts by a hobbit or an orc who enjoys flowers and poetry. 

By contrast, the Star Wars prequels dare to suggest that evil isn’t a genetic deficiency or even completely attributable to a failure of the human will.  Anakin Skywalker appears in our midst as a little boy not unlike any little boy anywhere in America.   It is perhaps the jarring admission that the villain we came to know as Darth Vader was not always Darth Vader, and that is just too much to accept for people who so willingly believe in the simple moral absolutes of Lord of the Rings.  Even more daring is the suggestion that every major figure with whom the grown-up Anakin Skywalker comes into contact with bears some responsibility for his transformation into Darth Vader.  (I will exclude my hero Qui-Gon Jin from this because he died before Anakin grew up and there is the distinct possibility that his influence could have saved the galaxy.) 

Obi Wan Kenobi shares a part in the evil that is Darth Vader because he never fully respected or trusted Anakin.  He isn’t necessarily to be blamed for this, of course; he had the little brat foisted on him against his choice as the dying words of his master, Qui-Gon Jin.  I’m not a Star Wars nerd so I don’t know if there is some kind of written Jedi code somewhere, but I’m willing to bet that if there is one of the commandments is thou shalt honor the dying wishes of your master.  Obi Wan had no choice.  He had to train Anakin and it’s clear from the beginning that he wasn’t quite as convinced of Anakin’s greatness as Qui-Gon.  And speaking of Anakin as being a brat, there has been a lot of talk about how the young Anakin was a whiny crybaby.  Well, I’ve got news for you: Darth Vader—and anyone who engages in the dark side of evil, revenge and tyrrany—was a whiny crybaby, too.  Hitler was a whiny crybaby about Jews; Stalin was a whiny crybaby about anyone who disagreed with him and, well, you know…he’s a whiny crybaby, too. 

Padme bears a great deal of responsibility for Anakin’s downfall.  It is quite clear that as soon as she saw Anakin was in love with her she should said to him, “Look, Ani, you can be with me or you can be a Jedi.  But you can’t be both.”  She’s older than Anakin, infinitely more mature and should have known better.  Since part of the reason that Anakin is seduced by the dark side has to do with his conviction that she will die in child birth unless he learns how to resurrect her, one argument can be made that if weren’t for Padme, he might never have gone over at all.  I reject that argument as being too simplistic in a Lord of the Rings sort of way, but there’s no question that Padme should have forced him to make a choice.  You can’t be a Jedi and a husband. 

The entire Jedi Council, including Yoda, bear blame.  One really can’t blame Anakin too much for allowing Palpatine to kill Mace Windu.  Mace Windu was especially cruel to him.  But so was Yoda, who certainly should have known better.  He sensed the fear and anger in the boy, and should have taken that into consideration in his dealings.  Yoda is a bit inscrutable, of course and there are indications he foresaw everything, as if he knew that the devastation was not only coming but was a necessity in bringing balance to the Force.  I don’t think George Lucas could allow that to rise to the surface because it would then turn Yoda into a fatalist and an especially heartless one at that.  But if you look closely at Yoda’s reactions throughout the prequel series, there are moments of silence that almost certainly lead one to that conclusion.  At any rate, the high-handed way in which the Jedi Council acted toward him makes Anakin’s acceptance of the story of Palpatine that the Jedi are just like everyone else—desperate to hold onto power and corrupt in the protection of it—ring far truer than Anakin’s reply that the Jedi use their power only for good and don’t think only of themselves.  The Jedi are not at the height of their goodness in the prequel; check out the glee with which Obi Wan Kenobi cuts off the head of an already injured battle droid during his fight with General Grievous.  Clearly, Anakin’s faith that the Jedi are pure of heart is misplaced. 

Which brings us, of course, to Palpatine himself.  I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to say that Chancellor Palpatine in the entire prequel, but especially Revenge of the Sith, is the single most fascinating movie character of the last decade.  And certainly of the entire Star Wars franchise.   When people speak of George W. Bush’s charm, I always picture Palpatine.  I’ve never witnessed this Bush charm; he’s always seemed smarmy and hypocritical to me, but even people who don’t like him say that in person he is very charming.  I imagine he’s charming like Palpatine, in a serpent-like way in which he tells you everything you want to hear for his own gain.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Bush is Palpatine. In fact, just the opposite, I think George W. Bush is Anakin.  Bush’s father always struck me as a decent man; misguided, sure, and certainly power-hungry, but deep down he seems to possess a sincerity sorely lacking in his son. 

In my opinion, it is Barbara Bush who is Palpatine.  From the stories I’ve read from both friends and enemies of Barbara Bush, she is the Angela Lansbury character in The Manchurian Candidate come to life.  In public she has perfected her sweet old granny persona to the point where even I believed it.  The façade began to crumble for me when she publicly stated she wouldn’t say anything bad about Hillary Clinton during the 1992 Presidential campaign and then the next day started badmouthing her.  Since then I’ve learned she trucks no criticism of her precious darling baby boy. 

George W. Bush, like Anakin, has goodness in him, of that I’ve no doubt.  But somewhere along the way—again, like Anakin—he was seduced into following the politics of fear.   I won’t LOTR this; I won’t lay the blame at his mother’s feet; it takes a village to raise a Darth.  Chancellor Palpatine may, in fact, be Anakin’s Karl Rove.   Palpatine takes advantage of what he knows of Anakin’s motivations by asking leading, open-ended questions like if the Jedi think only of good why did they ask Anakin to do something like spy on him.  He also seduces Anakin with cryptic statements that contain just enough ambiguity to cause even a good person to question by linking the Jedi Council’s suspicious of Anakin to the Jedi’s distrust of the entire system of democracy.  

Like Palpatine says, good is a point of view.  What he neglects to mention is that that point of view is always shifting and constantly in flux.  (Consider that twenty years ago Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were shaking hands with Saddam Hussein and selling him weapons.)  Palpatine’s statements are valid, even to someone not dealing with the baggage that Anakin carries. And if you think that kind of seduction doesn’t work, then just look at the comments people like me and Jeff Musall get when we propose that democracy isn’t perfect.  When Anakin accepts Palpatine’s reasoning that the Jedi are dangerous because they don’t fully buy into democratic principles, that’s not much different from the people who tell Jeff Musall and me to leave America when we suggest that perhaps democracy could be improved. 

The world of Star Wars is one curiously free from media influence, but the same principle applies.  The influences on Anakin Skywalker are the people he meets, the religion he follows and, most importantly, the politics that control his society.  All of these influences converge with his own genetic makeup and psychological imperfections to create a person who ultimately chooses the dark side.  The exact same thing happens in our society; when someone tells me to leave America because I say it’s not perfect that person thinks he is expressing an opinion formed in a vacuum.  He thinks that opinion is entirely his own, uninfluenced by television, movies, music, billboards, politicians, etc.  He may admit he arrived at that opinion with the help of friends and family, but he will never admit that 100 years of film and 60 years of television had anything to do with it.   

The title of this article is a play on the title of Hillary Clinton’s book—doubtlessly actually written by someone else—It Takes a Village.  Just as it takes a takes a village to raise a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. it also takes a village to raise a Darth.  Anyone looking around today can see that despicably evil acts are committed hourly, but it’s a tragic and long-lasting mistake to attribute evil acts to evil people.  Nobody is born evil.  It is learned and even more importantly—as is illuminated so brilliantly by the story of Anakin—most people who commit truly evil acts not only don’t believe they are doing so, but are convinced they are saviors.  Anakin Skywalker becomes convinced he is bringing peace to the galaxy; Osama Bin-Laden is no doubt convinced that he is doing God’s work; Hitler was convinced the world would thank him for exterminating the Jews.  In some ways, the Star Wars prequels remind me of Neil Jordan’s overlooked masterpiece The Butcher Boy.  In that film a young boy in an Irish village is shipped off to an asylum after committing an atrocity, but the village denies its own complicity in molding the young boy by their rejection of him when it was clear he needed help. 

Of course, ultimately, it is Anakin Skywalker who must decide his fate.  Like all of us, his destiny is in his hands by virtue of not having a lightsaber pointed at him.  He could have been the one to make the decision Padme or Jedi.  He could have rejected Palpatine’s seduction.  But just like in real life, we attribute too much to free will.  Free will suggests a moral vacuum in which every choice is not only clear, but our own.  But in order to make any choice in life, we must depend upon what we’ve learned.  Free will is undermined when you are only getting half the story.  Free will is undermined by ideological inculcation.  Free will is only half free; we can make the choice ourselves, but that choice has been sculpted by any number of outside influences.  What you may consider a choice made freely has probably been made for you as a result of the moral lessons you have received either in church, through the media, or through human interaction.  

History will vindicate the Star Wars prequels for the complex and profound saga they tell.  Remember, Ben-Hur and Titanic share the record for the most Academy Award wins in history, they were both enormous box-office hits and won critical respect.  Today, nobody watches anything else in Ben-Hur except for the twenty minute chariot race and Titanic’s slide into obscurity has already begun.  Twenty or thirty years from now there will be a re-appreciation for the depth and complexity of the Star Wars prequels while Lord of the Rings is forgotten and the original Star Wars trilogy is esteemed for what it always really was: a great popcorn movie serial.