Retrospective Review: Attack of the Clones

Star_Wars_-_Episode_II_Attack_of_the_Clones_(movie_poster)In preparation for The Force Awakens, I’m rewatching all six Star Wars films and sharing my thoughts here. This week, I look at Attack of the Clones, which sees the start of the Clone Wars. (originally published at Legendarium Media)

Over the years, I’ve heard many people complain about politics in the Prequel Trilogy. Unlike in the Original Trilogy, which focused primarily on military engagements, the Prequels contain several scenes in the Galactic Senate and in the chancellor’s office. Some fans claim that the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, with its references trade disputes and taxation, seemed out of place for a Star Wars film. It’s not uncommon even for fans who enjoyed the Prequels to argue that politics and Star Wars don’t mix. Yet, I can’t help but feel that such complaints misdiagnose the problem. We know that political intrigue can provide for compelling drama. One need only look at Dune or Game of Thrones. So, why did so many people complain about politics the Prequels?

Upon rewatching Attack of the Clones, I think one problem is that none of the main characters has a stake in the political process. In Game of Thrones, the characters have a stake in the outcome of political disputes in a way that Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé simply don’t. Consider each character’s attitude towards politicians and politics. Near the beginning of the film, Obi-Wan warns Anakin that politicians are “not to be trusted” and complains about corruption in the Senate. His attitude doesn’t come across as outrage so much as cynicism. There’s a difference. Outrage can fuel people to take action to fight against corruption, whereas cynicism typically leads to apathy and inaction. Obi-Wan never tries to push for reforms; instead, he just complains about corruption. His attitude also signals to viewers that we too should not trust politicians or care about the political process.

By contrast, Anakin Skywalker has perhaps a bit too much trust in certain politicians. As he tells Padmé on Naboo, he is has little patience for debates and deal-making. In fact, he half-jokingly suggests a dictatorship, “if it works.” Despite his interest in politics, he doesn’t appear particularly invested in the central political debate in the movie about the creation of an army. More importantly, Anakin’s primary character motivations in the film have nothing to do with politics. His internal conflict is between the Jedi prohibition against attachments versus his very strong attachments to his mother and Padmé. Even in Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin finally swears allegiance to Palpatine, the fate of democracy is far from his mind.

UntitledAs a Senator, Padmé Amidala led the charge against the Military Creation Act until repeated assassination attempts forced her into hiding. She cares deeply about the outcome of the debate. At least initially. Padmé’s arc over the course of Attack of the Clones is her disengagement from politics as she becomes more involved in romance. The film novelization, which incorporates scenes deleted from the final film, makes this clear. When Padmé returns to Naboo, her sister and mother express concern about Padmé’s obsession with duty. After playing with her nieces, Padmé herself expresses a longing for family. One gets the sense that she was using her political crusades to distract herself from her personal emptiness. That’s not to say Padmé completely abandons any interest in politics, but by the end of the film Padmé’s goals are no longer primarily political. Indeed, she doesn’t even comment upon the Clone Army, which represents a failure of her pacifist approach.

In short, there’s a disconnect between the characters’ personal goals and the larger political drama unfolding all around them. Take the following scene (dialogue from the shooting script):

ANAKIN: I don’t think the system works.

PADMÉ: How would you have it work?

ANAKIN: We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problems, agree what’s in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.

PADMÉ: That is exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don’t wlways agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.

ANAKIN: Then they should be made to.

PADMÉ: By whom? Who’s going to make them?

ANAKIN: I don’t know. Someone.

PADMÉ: You?

ANAKIN: Of course not me.

PADMÉ: But someone.

ANAKIN: Someone wise.

PADMÉ: That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.

[A mischievious little grin creeps across his face.]

ANAKIN: Well, if it works…

The scene provides an interesting moment for Anakin. In fact, I’ve heard many people express similar sentiments throughout my travels in Asia. Democracy is hard work, and when people get frustrated they often become nostalgic for authoritarian leaders who at least “made the trains run on time.” At the same time, the scene never really explains either character’s motivations. The discussion comes across like an undergraduate seminar about political theory rather than an intimate conversation between friends. It’s very abstract. In fact, one could imagine Anakin and Padmé reversing positions. Anakin was a slave who became a Jedi, so he should appreciate the value of freedom. By contrast, democracy failed Padmé in The Phantom Menace; she only freed Naboo through force of arms. Based solely on what we get, it’s not clear to the viewer why these characters believe what they do.

Untitled4As a sort of thought experiment I briefly tried to rewrite this scene to link each character’s political outlook with some sort of motivating factor. I tried to make as few changes as possible to get the intended effect:

ANAKIN: I don’t think the system works.

PADMÉ: Of course democracy has its problems. Don’t you think I was frustrated when the Senate didn’t intervene to help Naboo against the Trade Federation. But what’s the alternative? Dictatorship?

ANAKIN: If it means we get stuff done, then who cares what you call it?

PADMÉ: Don’t you understand what that means? Under a dictatorship, we’d lose all of our rights. We’d effectively become slaves to whoever is in power.

[Anakin, visibly angry, touch of sarcasm]

ANAKIN: Democracy hasn’t done much to stop slavery. You know how many corrupt politicians profit from the slave trade!

[Padmé, visibly shaken but not frightened, more sympathetic]

PADMÉ: Anakin, did the Jedi Council ever approve your request to rescue the slaves on Tatooine?

[Anakin, voice softening slightly, head down as if ashamed to look at Padmé]

ANAKIN: The Council says the Senate has to authorize any mission. The Senate says Tatooine lies outside Republic jurisdiction. [Pause] If we just had somebody who could make all the Senators agree…

PADMÉ: Of course I wish the Senate would take more action. But the fact is Senators are scared. With the Separatist crisis nobody wants to do something that might trigger a war. I don’t think you’d get Senators to vote for anything controversial unless you threatened to take away their privileges.

[A mischievious little grin creeps across his face.]

ANAKIN: Well, if it works…

[Padmé laughs; scene continues as written]

What I tried to do here is show through the dialogue how both characters arrived at their convictions. Anakin cares that the system is broken because it frustrates his goal of freeing the slaves (remember his promise in TPM?). For her part, Padmé isn’t just a naïve idealist, but rather realizes that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. It also provides a contrast to Obi-Wan’s cynicism from earlier in the film. In short, the revised scene hopefully shows why each character—and hence the viewer—has an interest in the Senate debates.

Untitled2Unfortunately, the way the Prequels handled political intrigue seems to have soured many fans on the idea of politics in Star Wars generally. When J.J. Abrams took the helm for Episode VII, Entertainment Weekly opined that it meant we’d likely get “less politics… and that’s a good thing.” Even when I found the execution lacking, I admire Lucas for tackling big political questions. Unlike many blockbusters, there’s more to this film than mindless action scenes.

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About Dom

I study constitutional politics in Southeast Asia and I occasionally work as a consultant for rule of law projects. I enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories, both as an escape and as a way to better understand our world. One day, I hope to write a book about politics in genre literature.
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