The question that Rogue One poses is “What does it mean to rebel?” Why rebel against authority? Should one rebel against all authority? What does rebellion do to one’s soul? What does conformity do to one’s soul? Why rebel when rebellion will lead to the deaths of millions, and maybe the death of you? Star Wars movies, up ’til now, have always explored the question of Empire vs Rebellion in stark black-and-white terms, but Rogue One dices up those terms, folds them over and then dices them up again before arriving at a conclusion.
Before we discuss Director Krennic, let’s take a look back at the previous “bad guys” from the Star Wars universe:
First and foremost there is Darth Vader. Darth Vader starts off as “evil” in Episode IV, develops into “evil, but subservient to a greater evil” in Episode V, and, finally, “evil, but conflicted, and eventually redeemed” in Episode VI. Vader’s Terminator-like consistency was part of his appeal, it was what made him terrifying. He wore a mask, you couldn’t know what he was thinking, he destroyed anything that got in his way.
Then there is Emperor Palpatine. Emperor Palpatine is an uncomplicated climber, a man whose pursuit of power didn’t corrupt him at all, because he was evil to begin with. He started out a villainous creep and ended up as, apparently, all Sith Lords end up: killed by his own apprentice.
Then there are garden-variety bad guys like Grand Moff Tarkin, Jabba the Hutt, General Grievous and Nute Gunray, who range from sniveling pawns to grotesque monsters.
What all of them have in common is “they are bad.” In story meetings, when the producer asks “What is the antagonist’s motive?” the poor screenwriter says “He does bad things because he is bad.” That, of course, is how you know you’re writing a melodrama.
(The word “melodrama,” for non-theater-nerds, comes from the theater of early America, where people of many different linguistic backgrounds would all go to the theater to enjoy a play. Because not everyone spoke the language being used on stage, the band in the pit would cue the audience as to how to feel about different characters. A “sweet” character would be given a sweet melody, a “sinister” character would be given a sinister melody, a hero would be given a heroic melody, and so forth. Hence, “melodrama,” a dramatic form where the audience is heavily cued as to the “good and bad” of the narrative. John Williams’s music for the earlier movies used all these tricks to good effect: Luke got a yearning theme, Leia got a gentle theme, Darth Vader got an imperial march.)
The problem with this approach, of course, is that no bad guy ever thinks of himself as “the bad guy.” As Jean Renoir said, “everyone has their reasons.”
Things have improved with the re-launch of the brand and Episode VII. Kylo Ren is a genuine freak, a perverse, warped individual who is compelled to do bad things even when he doesn’t want to, who wears a mask when he doesn’t need to, who reacts with fear and confusion when his worldview is challenged.
And now we have Director Krennic, the most finely-drawn, complex villain we’ve seen yet.
Of all the characters in Rogue One, Galen Erso has the most complicated motivations, which I will discuss inside.
Another Star Wars movie is released, and so the time has come for all denizens of the internet to remind the world that they would make a better Star Wars movie than anyone in Hollywood. I’ve been told that Rogue One is both too radical a departure and more of the same, that it’s both too grim and too superfluous, that its plot is both too complicated and too simple, that the story is both too esoteric and too obvious. These are the kinds of complaints that, to my mind, can only be the product of expectations. If one goes into a movie with a set of expectations and those expectations are unfulfilled, sometimes one’s response is to spend the running time looking for the movie expected instead of watching the one being screened.
But of all the complaints directed at Rogue One, the oddest one I’ve found is “the characters are thin.” This is absurd, since the characters in Rogue One are, by a long stretch, the most complex ever presented in a Star Wars movie. Generally speaking, the characters in a typical Star Wars movie are “one thing.” Obi-Wan Kenobi is “wise,” Luke Skywalker is “idealistic,” Leia is “spunky,” C-3PO is “fussy.” In 1977, Han Solo emerged as the breakout character of the series because he’s the only one who changes: he starts out as a murderous mercenary and slowly turns into a radicalized rebel. Darth Vader only becomes interesting as a character when we see him, in the original trilogy, go from being “pure evil” to being an individual caught between conflicting emotional impulses. The prequel trilogy squanders the opportunity to make Vader’s character more interesting by placing him on a straight road from “jerky kid” to “jerky teenager” to “jerky adult” before arriving finally at “victim.” The prequels are boring not because they lack plot but because Anakin Skywalker never changes. The key moment of his character arrives at the end of Episode III, when the Darth Vader mask is lowered onto his face, sealing his identity, and his destiny.
Speaking of masks and identity, the characters of Rogue One stand out in the Star Wars universe because, unlike most others, they are one thing, but they yearn to be another thing, while circumstances insist on them being a third thing. Identity is a strong theme running through Rogue One, identity and how it functions in society. One presumably knows who oneself is, but society often demands that one pretend to be someone one is not, to play a role. This happens to everyone to one extent or another, because social order otherwise disintegrates. Like Darth Vader, we all must wear masks as we play the roles of student, of employee, of spouse, of parent, of citizen. The conflicts in Rogue One emerge when characters get tired of playing their assigned roles, when they insist on expressing themselves, revealing who they “really are.”
As discussion of the Rogue One characters necessarily involves spoilers, be warned!
As Hail, Caesar! hurtles toward its climax, perhaps it’s worth taking a pause to note that this movie, which informs us that Hollywood lies, itself lies about the historical Hollywood.
Eddie Mannix, the reader may be surprised to learn, was a real person, who was the general manager of MGM under the real-life Nicholas Schenck. Mannix did “fix” a lot of MGM’s problems, from getting Clark Gable out of a hit-and-run accident to down-playing Garbo’s lesbianism. The real-life Mannix was also considerably older than Hail, Caesar!‘s, and was dead by 1963. While he was Catholic, there is no indication whatsoever that he was the quiet, soul-searching family man presented here.
While I’ve been saying that Hail, Caesar! takes place in 1951, there isn’t a date presented anywhere in the movie. The official plot description says it takes place in “the early 1950s.” I landed on 1951 primarily because that’s the latest date it’s conceivable to me that a group of communist writers would think up a plot as cockamamie as “kidnapping a movie star.” Baird Whitlock, meanwhile, is starring in a movie clearly modeled on Ben-Hur, which was not released until 1959. 1949’s Samson and Delilah started the “Technicolor Biblical Epic” craze of the 1950s, and Hail, Caesar! ATOTC seems to be a mashup of Ben-Hur and 1951’s Quo Vadis.
So, if 1951 is our benchmark, then Burt Gurney, who is clearly inspired by Gene Kelly, is making a service comedy-musical closely modeled on On the Town (1949). Kelly’s 1951 picture was An American in Paris. DeeAnna Moran, meanwhile, is obviously modeled on Esther Williams, who, like DeeAnna, had a complicated romantic life and made an “aquatic picture” titled Neptune’s Daughter in 1949 and Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952, not to mention Jupiter’s Daughter in 1955 and Athena in 1954.
But, as noted earlier, a 20-something singing cowboy would be seem very old-hat to 1951 audiences, so Hobie Doyle is a puzzling anachronism. Even more so, his date at the Lazy Ol’ Moon premiere, Carlotta Valdez, is clearly modeled on Carmen Miranda, who was 41 years old in 1951, long past her peak and four years away from her untimely death. It seems that Hobie and Carlotta belong to a decade of movies set at least a decade earlier than Whitlock and Gurney. It’s as though Eddie Mannix’s entire career is being packed into one night.
Eddie heads back to the Chinese restaurant to meet, for a second time, with Cuddahy, the man from Lockheed. What has changed in Eddie’s life in the past six hours? He’s had to deal with a director throwing a hissy fit, he’s had to pay ransom for a kidnapped movie star, figure out a solution to a pregnant mermaid problem, fend off fights from two gossip columnists, and save the life of an editor who was almost killed by her own Moviola. That has involved a lot of running around but nothing that Eddie would call “physical culture.” Cuddahy offers Eddie a contract of ten years, with stock options. He’s essentially offering Eddie a chance to be “set for life,” a sense of permanence in a world full of craziness. He also offers Eddie a set of airplane gifts for his children — he knows that Eddie’s 27-hour days leave him no time to be a husband and father, and that wracks him with guilt.
At the half-way point of the narrative, Hail, Caesar! introduces a new major character, Burt Gurney, seen on the set of a service-comedy-musical, performing a long, complex tap routine with a group of sailors, to a song called “No Dames.” In the context of the number, Burt and his crew are going to sea for eight months and will be without women and with little to do. Gay joke aside, the number is nevertheless a piece of foreshadowing for Burt’s eventual fate, a sunny Hollywood version of a story that hasn’t happened yet. There is no biblical subtext to the number that I can divine, but Hail, Caesar! doesn’t seem to be that adamant about laying on the Christian symbolism too heavily. Hobie Doyle’s movie, for instance, has no biblical subtext either, beyond a kind of Manichean good-guy-bad-guy reading of human interactions. Like Hobie’s movie, and DeeAnna’s mermaid picture, the “No Dames” sequence relishes the pure visual joy of bodies in motion, shifting patterns and colors.
(Also like the other movie-within-a-movie scenes, “No Dames” is presented as though being shot in sequence, live on a soundstage. In this way, Hail, Caesar! becomes a movie about itself, a movie that lies to us about how movies are made while on the way to telling us about how movies lie to us.)
After Eddie collects the $100,000 in ransom, before he can make it back to his office he runs into Thora Thacker’s identical twin sister Thessaly, who, like her sister, intends to run a story on Baird Whitlock, this one about his current disappearance. Eddie asks both sisters “What kind of a name is _____?” Well, “Thora” is, of course, a Scandinavian name, the female version of Thor. “Thessaly,” on the other hand, is a city in Greece. Both civilizations, and names, predate Christianity. Perhaps the Thacker sisters (“Thacker” being a corruption of “Thatcher,” or “the guy who builds roofs” in Old English, also derived from the Norman) are meant to be reactionaries, students of “the old ways,” predating even Caesar’s Rome, who are resistant to both Mr. Schenck’s Capitol and to the message of Jesus.
Eddie Mannix meets with the producer of Hail, Caesar! ATOTC to discuss the crisis of Baird Whitlock’s disappearance. The producer is, if anything, even more passionate about the project than Eddie. He’s not prepared to “shoot around” Baird, the “heart of the movie” depends on Baird’s face, his star power. And so a ticking clock is installed in Hail, Caesar!: Eddie must find and recover Baird Whitlock by tomorrow morning or else his tale of the Christ is forfeit. (I find it hard to believe that a project the size and scope of Hail, Caesar! ATOTC hasn’t already been beset by massive delays and cost overruns, but apparently Eddie Mannix runs a pretty tight ship.)
Eighteen minutes into Hail, Caesar! we are treated to a water ballet number from another one of Capitol Pictures’ production slate, Jonah’s Daughter. The sequence is quite long and involved, with dozens of synchronized swimmers, a mechanical whale and Scarlett Johansson in a mermaid outfit. Hail, Caesar! takes care, when presenting its movies-within-the-movie, to present the finished product, as though complex sequences like the one shown here or the shootout in the Hobie Doyle movie are shot live by multiple camera. The Coens are careful to save their “cutting to reality” jokes for key moments; they otherwise give these Technicolor spectacles their due, letting us luxuriate in the tactile thrills of their sumptuous production values. Which makes me think that the title, Hail, Caesar!, isn’t meant ironically; the Coens really intend their movie to be a heartfelt salute to “capital” and the colorful fantasies it provides for the people.
And although the title of the mermaid picture is only fleetingly mentioned in an earlier scene, the whale is very much present, and we are reminded that the tale of Jonah and the whale is, like Hail, Caesar! ATOTC, also from the Bible, although from the Old Testament, the one with the “angry God” mentioned in the scene with the religious leaders. So an examination of the story of Jonah is in order.
Jonah is the central character in the Book of Jonah. Commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it “for their great wickedness is come up before me,” Jonah instead seeks to flee from “the presence of the Lord” by sailing to Tarshish. A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing that it is no ordinary storm, cast lots and discover that Jonah is to blame. Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard, the storm will cease. The sailors try to dump as much cargo as possible before giving up, but feel forced to throw him overboard, at which point the sea calms. The sailors then offer sacrifices to God. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large whale-like fish in whose belly he spends three days and three nights. While in the great fish, Jonah prays to God in his affliction and commits to thanksgiving and to paying what he has vowed. God commands the fish to spew Jonah out.
How extraordinary that Eddie Mannix is producing a movie inspired by this story. Jonah is told by God to go preach to Ninevah, but doesn’t think he’s up to the task and flees from God’s command. God answers his reluctance with a storm, but then offers him salvation with a whale. In Eddie’s world, we see no indication of his fleeing from his God’s (Mr. Schenck) command, but we do see him terribly worried about disappointing Jesus (even though he doesn’t know a lot about Jesus). I think Eddie is a man who feels that he should be devoting more attention to God, but instead spends his time in activities of desperately earthly nature, even though he himself has only one vice, cigarettes.