Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Review: ‘Rogue One’ is a heckuva good war movie wrapped in a Star Wars legend

Fear not, "Rogue One" is a magnificent and heartening addition to the canon.



By “Hunter”


By “Hunter”
Best Defense war movie reviewer

No spoilers in this one. When Disney pried the Star Wars franchise away from world-builder George Lucas, there was both trepidation and relief among fans. For fans of the original trilogy, Lucas’ much-maligned prequels undermined his legend and turned pop culture’s most malevolent and revered villain, Darth Vader, into an immaculate conception, whiny brat who is duped into being evil. Disney was granted the opportunity to build a new canon with one of the world’s greatest franchises, but they were also going to need to make their $4 billion dollars back.

The first Disney Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, was not demonstrative of what could be done. It was a necessary step to regain the faith of the followers but its regurgitation (watch the video it’s shocking) of familiar story points made it a pale imitation of Star Wars. (It did make a ton of money though.)

Now comes Rogue One, the first of the “A Star Wars Story” movies not burdened by the Skywalker/Vader story arc. Annual movie releases will intersperse stand-alone stories with the main storyline presented by Force Awakens and its two planned follow-ons.

At first glance, Rogue One looks like another prequel failure in the making. Its main theme is, literally, the first lines in the original 1977 Star Wars prologue movie crawl: “A NEW HOPE: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star….”

As with any prequel, this presents a big risk. We know the Rebels are successful from the outset, so the surprise is lost.

Fear not, prospective movie-goers, Rogue One is a magnificent and heartening addition to the canon. It is successful largely by NOT being a Star Wars movie. It avoids Star Wars movie baggage in many small ways, but one really significant way. This movie is an ensemble WAR movie. (Psst, it’s also a heist movie.) It puts the “war” in Star Wars, better than any predecessor. Sure, there were battles in the old movies: Hoth, Endor, Naboo, and other prequel locations no one cares to remember. But those fights always had a glossy, cartoonish veneer (especially with the bumbling Stormtroopers, cute little Ewoks, and prequel’s Gungans).

For me, Rogue One harkens back to The Dirty Dozen, The Big Red One, Platoon, or Saving Private Ryan. There’s the rebel cast of gritty, combat specialists which we come to know just enough to forward the narrative without bogging down. In the past I’ve accused movies like Fury of relying on clichéd characters; it’s a fine line that’s easy to cross. But Rogue One doesn’t.

Rogue One succeeds where many other films fail in showing the effects of war on its participants. Oh sure, people die by the bushel in the film. But the Rebellion’s layers of counterinsurgency — with some al Qaeda-like actors operating outside the realms of Rebel control (hint: Saw) — and the ethical choices made by co-protagonist Captain Cassian Andor, are what make this movie shine. Andor is called an intelligence officer, but he’s also a ruthless spy and sniper and he makes some tough, haunting, Machiavellian decisions. Andor assembles more spies, snipers, and assassins before the final reel. They have done wrong, but they long to know that they have done it in service of a righteous cause. The Rebellion is no longer wearing strictly white hats, an anachronism that was neither real nor enjoyable.

A typical Star Wars fan may have many favorite characters, but Han Solo’s antihero often looms largest — simply because he is the most flawed, the most real. Rogue One is this antihero character writ large across an entire movie. War is messy, dirty, and deadly. This movie is very much about when and when not to follow orders. Indeed, there must be a rebellion within the Rebellion to find any small victory in the final reel.

There are other brilliant elements. An Empire “Acquisitions Corps” lackey appears driven by bureaucratic efficiency to bring his project in on time and curry favor. The same lackey is shocked and awed when his Manhattan Project comes to fruition in its first operational test. He doesn’t resort to Oppenheimer’s “Now, I am become death.” Instead, director Orson Krennic makes his death blossom simply “beautiful.” Also, black-clad Death Troopers actually hit their targets, unlike their Storm Trooper brethren. When has white ever been a good combat uniform choice?

There’s conniving, betrayal and politics — but none of the prequels’ glacial Trade Federation muckety-muck. There’s space jockey pilots and ground-pounding pathfinders, hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, battling in another futile fight, but giving the “last full measure of devotion.”

Rogue One has its faults. There’s silliness in the final act — including an egregiously “convenient” master switch. Too much interplanetary travel. Vader’s appearance will both thrill and, perhaps, disappoint — you’ll crave more. But as a war movie, where characters choose between bad options and worse options, this very dark movie works. See it in the theaters where the sound and fury will be most spectacular.

Note: Rogue One was the subject of huge speculation. Supposedly, Disney execs ordered rescripting and reshoots because the first cut lacked the tone of other Star Wars films. I’d love to see an original MOAR [sic] WAR cut. We may never know. This excellent film is good enough for me. I place it only behind Empire Strikes Back within the Star Wars pantheon. Also, some of the CGI character work in this movie is a new level of technical awesome. You’ll know it when you see it.

Hunter is a RC infantry colonel. Even though he enjoys Star Wars, he still prefers Star Trek. His reviews have absolutely nothing to do with the Department of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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