By Star Wars standards, Rogue One is a morally complex story. From beginning to end, it’s a film about war and espionage, and it provides some surprising depth to the nature of the Rebel Alliance. Forest Whitaker’s character, Saw Gerrera, helps bring some reality to the Alliance, and the question of how they’re conducting their operations.
Spoilers for Rogue One follow.
Saw Gerrera first appeared in 2012, in the fifth season of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars. As the leader of the Onderon rebels, aided by Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gerrera was victorious over the Separatist military in a four-episode arc. When the Republic became the Empire, he began to fight again, assembling a group known as the Partisans, which began to fight against the Imperial forces on Jedha.
While his rebel cell was an early part of the Rebel Alliance, relations soured between his group and the rest. In Alexander Freed’s novelization of Rogue One, Gerrera is described as an extremist: “Even when Jyn had first met Saw, he’d been on the fringes of the rebellion. If he’d parted ways with the Alliance altogether, it meant his course had held steady.”
This is where we meet Gerrera in the film: he’s an older extremist, disconnected from the Alliance, paranoid about moles and conspirators, and hobbled by decades of conflict. We get some glimpses of his ethically complex (if not outright sinister) methods throughout the film: his use of guerrilla attacks against Imperial forces in Jedha City, his use of a Bor gullet to torture Bodhi Rook, an Imperial defector.
As a morally compromised hero, Saw helps inject depth into the Star Wars factions. When we first encountered the Rebel Alliance back in 1977, the lines were clear cut: the Empire was pure evil, while the Rebels were a force for good, working to restore democracy. With Rogue One, the divide isn’t so clear. The rebels, as Captain Andor Cassian noted in the film, have “done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion.” We see Cassian himself attempt to assassinate Galen Erso, on the orders of Alliance generals.
There are a number of real-world parallels here, which helps make Rogue One considerably more relevant, even though Disney CEO Bob Iger has protested that the film isn’t political. The parallels to history are easy to draw: the film’s emphasis on guerrilla warfare and ends-justify-the-means military strategy, in particular, appears to echo recent conflicts in places such as Syria and Afghanistan. While these parallels aren’t exact, they point to a franchise that has expanded beyond the pulpy material that inspired it, and a connection to the time and place in which these new films exist.
The Rebel Alliance isn’t a divine source of good. It’s a governing body run by people from across the galaxy with conflicting goals and beliefs, ranging from the extremists represented by Gerrera to those who might reconcile with the Empire itself.
The Rogue One novelization provides some additional context for the Alliance’s main goals, through Mon Mothma: “Since we first heard rumors of the planet killer, I’ve been straining to organize our allies in the Senate so that they might push through a vote: a declaration of intent for the Empire’s demilitarization and a reconciliation with the Rebel Alliance.” The Alliance wasn’t looking to overthrow the Empire, it was looking to reform it from within.
This paints the rebellion as a far more moderate organization than some of its counterparts, and it helps explain why a collection of like-minded organizations was having so much trouble against the unified military force that was the Empire. It also explains why fighters like Saw Gerrera would have trouble operating under the banner of the Alliance: he sees the group as betraying his core principles, compromising to get half a result. It’s no wonder he decided to walk away from the Rebellion, and that it’s so difficult for regular Alliance personnel to approach him.
When George Lucas launched Star Wars in the 1970s, the Rebellion vs. Empire fight was partially inspired by Vietnam’s battle against the United States. But that conceptualization gave the universe an overly simplified view of a scrappy underdog fighting a technological superpower. Our societal understanding of real-world events is more nuanced; look no further than the worlds and conflicts portrayed in the shows Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse. With Rogue One’s inclusion of Saw Gerrera, Star Wars has caught up to the science-fiction it helped inspire.