The Rebellion’s freedom fighters are the Empire’s terrorists
by MATTHEW GAULT
This article contains extensive spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back always made the Rebellion seem so righteous, organized and pure. The good guys wore white and always did the right thing. The bad guys, save the shiny armored stormtroopers, wore black and choked people to death with magic.
It was a classic tale of good versus evil — and an epic tale with an easy morality. But it was only part of the story and half the truth. War is always bloody, brutal and disgusting. The soldiers who fight, even when they fight for a good cause, debase themselves to serve the greater good.
The original trilogy gave audiences a wonderful story about a charismatic rogue, a take-no-shit princess and a farmer with a grand destiny. As children, we watched these heroes finish off the Empire, end the Galactic Civil War and restore peace to the galaxy.
Here’s the thing though — when Han and Luke entered the story and put an end to the Empire, the Civil War was already almost 20 years old. An entire generation knew nothing but constant war. Children were born, fought and died in the span of time it took Luke to grow up and learn his destiny.
His victory is built on the backs of millions of brave souls who stood up to the Empire and died. Worse, it’s built on the backs of millions of souls who stood up to the Empire and did horrifying things in the name of freedom.
Rogue One is their story.
Rogue One is a straightforward standalone Star Wars adventure that forces the audience to consider the horrors of war and insurgency. In A New Hope, we know the Rebellion has plans for the Death Star but not how those plans ended up in Leia’s hands. Rogue One explains how a ragtag band of rebels and hangers-on got those plans to the Rebel Alliance.
At the center of the story is Jyn Erso, daughter of the man who engineered the Death Star. The film opens with the Empire murdering Erso’s mother and kidnapping her father. She hides in a hole and the kindly but crazy Saw Gerrera rescues and raises her.
Gerrera is the first in a long line of batshit crazy rebel insurgents in Rogue One. This is a man Senator Mon Mothma calls an extremist … and she’s right. He runs a straight-up insurgency on the moon of Jedha. He and his band of rebels aren’t above killing civilians.
During the film they attack the Empire in broad daylight in a crowded city using explosives. Innocents die. His team downs supply convoys, black-bags captives as if they’re Gitmo detainees and tortures people to get information.
The torture is particularly horrifying. Gerrera straps victims to a chair in a room with a strange beast that rubs greasy tentacles across their temples and extracts the truth. He tells the victims it will probably drive them crazy.
We only see him use it once in the film and when he does, it’s on an Imperial pilot who’s defected and already told the insurgents everything he knows. Poor Bodhi Rook almost loses his mind trying to do the right thing.
Gerrera’s body is ravaged by decades of constant war. When Erso and he reconnect he’s more machine than man. Like Darth Vader, he uses a rebreather to survive. The machine body, the torture and the rebreather are all deliberate echoes of Vader. The filmmakers want the audience to see the blurry line between freedom fighter and terrorist.
Gerrera is a portrait of an extremist freedom fighter, a terrorist to both the Empire and the people of Jedha. The Rebellion doesn’t want him. He may think he’s helping them, but his violent and brutal tactics hurt the people he’s trying to protect.
His campaign of violence caused the Empire to occupy the ancient and holy Jedha City. A Star Destroyer hovers above the city and Imperial troops move through the streets, harassing the locals for I.D. and killing with impunity. The brutality of the occupation is a direct result of Gerrera’s extreme tactics.
It’s The Battle of Algiers meets Star Wars.
The other prominent and morally questionable rebel is Captain Cassian Andor. Along with Erso, Andor has been fighting for the Alliance his entire life. “I’ve been fighting this Rebellion since I was six years old,” he yells at one point late in the film.
So has Erso.
Gerrera trained Erso for 10 years before he left her to fend for herself. She was just 16. She and Andor are both children of the resistance and they’ve both done nasty things to survive.
Andor is one of the Rebellion’s dark operatives. He’s the guy they get to pull the trigger and do the wet work no one else will. He’s a bastard for the good guys.
His first scene puts him in a trading post getting information out of a scared informant. When stormtroopers show up and Andor needs to bail, he shoots the informant in the back. The poor guy has a bum arm and he’s not going to be able to climb to escape. He’s a liability and Andor makes sure he won’t weigh him down and jeopardize the higher goals of the Rebellion.
The Alliance also wants Andor to assassinate Erso’s father for crimes against the Galaxy and because he’s so important to the development of the Death Star. In a moment of weakness — or Force-given grace — he balks and lets the engineer live.
But Andro already called his boss and the Rebels are on their way. The Rebel X-Wings swoop down, light up the Imperial research facility and kill the engineer and many other innocent scientists forced to work at the end of a gun. Even if Andro didn’t pull the trigger, he’s still responsible.
Just like Gerrera, Andor’s hands are filthy with blood. Some of it is innocent, and some of it is even friendly. That’s what happens in war and what happens when fighting an oppressive fascist regime. It’s in the nature of oppression to infect everything it touches, even the oppressed. Those who revolt often adopt the tactics of their enemies. People become monsters to fight monsters.
At the end of the movie, when the senator won’t authorize the reckless mission to steal the plans, Andor organizes his fellow soldiers to volunteer for the suicide mission. He tells Erso and the others that he’s done terrible things in the name of the resistance. He tells them he needs that to mean something.
In the end, the heroes of Rogue One sacrifice themselves for the greater good and get the plans to Leia. But millions died to make that happen and not all were evil. Some were rebels, some were good and most just wanted to get through their day.
The Empire would not have used Jedha City as test target for the Death Star if Gerrera hadn’t made it impossible for them to hold. Bodhi didn’t need torture to loosen his tongue, and the Rebels killed millions of innocent construction workers when it blew up the second Death Star.
In war, especially an insurgent one, no one’s hands are clean.