This is the last Morning Jolt until December 30. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or nothing at all, I hope you have a good one. As for today’s topics, there was a Democratic debate last night and the articles of impeachment are in limbo, but . . . come on, today everybody’s going to be talking about Star Wars.
These Aren’t Debates, These Are Public Recitations of Competing Wish Lists
I don’t like these debates, and I don’t think it’s merely because I’m a right-of-center guy and these are left-of-center candidates. Our old friend Tim Alberta asked some really good questions last night, on whether climate change warranted relocating Americans’ homes, nuclear power, special-needs education, and President Obama’s recent contention that “if women were in charge, you’d see a significant improvement on just about everything.” But most of the time, the candidates ignored what was asked and simply responded with a bite-sized version of their stump speech. And their stump speeches are full of, “we must do this, and we will do this” with almost no, “this is how we’re going to do this.”
For example, Alberta asked Bernie Sanders what he would do if Medicare for All couldn’t pass the Senate. “Are there smaller, specific measures that you would take immediately to expand coverage and decrease costs as president?” Sanders simply rejected the premise: “I think we will pass a Medicare for All single-payer system, and I will introduce that legislation in my first week in office . . . We’re going to have the American people behind us. We will have Congress behind us.” These candidates are convinced that somewhere in the Oval Office, there’s a magic wand that takes away all political opposition and skeptics, and they intend to use it.
Schrödinger’s Impeachment: Trump Is Impeached and Not Yet Impeached Simultaneously
It is as if House Democrats just now suddenly realized that Trump’s impeachment trial will be held in a GOP-controlled Senate, full of lawmakers who have no interest in removing the president or spending one more minute on the process than necessary. As of this writing, the articles of impeachment are going into the freezer to be preserved until the House comes back on January 7. Democrats seem to think that eventually, Mitch McConnell will feel a need to hold a trial on terms more amenable to the desires of House Democrats. Good luck with that.
“I admit, I am not sure what leverage there is in refraining from sending us something we do not want,” Mr. McConnell said with a wry smile from the Senate floor. “But alas, if they can figure that out, they can explain it. Meanwhile, other House Democrats say they would prefer never to transmit the articles. Fine with me!”
Has President Trump been impeached? Legally . . . not yet! That’s the assessment of Noah Feldman was one of the law professor experts who testified during the impeachment hearings, an invited witness of the Democrats. “Impeachment as contemplated by the Constitution does not consist merely of the vote by the House, but of the process of sending the articles to the Senate for trial. Both parts are necessary to make an impeachment under the Constitution: The House must actually send the articles and send managers to the Senate to prosecute the impeachment. And the Senate must actually hold a trial.”
Trump would love the argument, “legally and under the Constitution, I was never impeached.” Why does Nancy Pelosi think McConnell is going to fold on this?
The State of the ‘Star Wars’ Union
There are no spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead, just the previous films.
Back in December 2015, a friend invited me to an early screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The mood in the theater was actually sort of tense and nervous, as this was the first new Star Wars film made by the new owners and creative team at Disney. Fan reaction to the prequels had been intensely divided, and some fans argued that the last non-disappointing Star Wars film had been The Empire Strikes Back, released in 1980. If the new sequel was a dud, Star Wars fans would have to conclude that the first movies were lightning in a bottle, never to be replicated again and that the beloved films of their childhood had turned into just another piece of “intellectual property” used by Hollywood as an ATM.
The good news was, audiences largely loved The Force Awakens; unadjusted for inflation, it’s the fourth highest-grossing film of all time. The mood in the audience for the early screening of the sequel, The Last Jedi, was enthusiasm and excitement. And for what it’s worth, people came out of that screening in good spirits, convinced they had seen something bold and groundbreaking and daring.
But Star Wars fans were deeply divided in their response to The Last Jedi. Two years ago, I was something of a defender of the film, admiring how it went in some really unexpected directions. I liked it the first time I saw it, but the second time, months later, the flaws became tougher to ignore. Those unexpected directions don’t make a lot of sense in retrospect.
Why does the main plot revolve around a slow-motion chase? Why does one of the main subplots revolve around an admiral refusing to reveal her plan to the rest of her leadership team? Why do characters veer off into a subplot to make a heavy-handed argument that wealthy war profiteers are the real villains? Why does Rose’s love interest in Finn seem to come out of nowhere? Director Rian Johnson seemed to have no interest in the ideas or plotlines set up in the previous film, and simply ignored or downplayed them. He left the heroic Resistance whittled down to only about two dozen remaining combatants, we learned the rest of the galaxy ignored their distress calls — suggesting the galaxy didn’t seem to care that the evil First Order was taking over. The implication was that nothing our heroes had done had mattered at all.
Luke casually tossing away his old lightsaber generates a laugh in that initial scene, but . . . it’s not earned. When a director chooses the story direction and tells an audience, “hey, remember your favorite character from your childhood, who appeared to have grown to embody all of the good and heroic and noble traits? Well, since you last saw him, he’s become a bitter old man who abandoned his friends and family and who doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore” . . . you cannot begrudge fans for responding negatively. Actor Mark Hamill revealed a lot when he said his relationship with writer and director Rian Johnson was initially strained. “I, at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”
But a funny thing happened on the road to The Rise of Skywalker: it became okay for the other actors to admit they weren’t thrilled with the previous movie, either.
“The Force Awakens I think was the beginning of something quite solid, The Last Jedi if I’m being honest I’d say that was feeling a bit iffy for me,” John Boyega declared in a magazine interview.
“I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the choices in that and that’s something that I spoke to Mark [Hamill] a lot about and we had conversations about it. And it was hard for all of us, because we were separated.”
Daisy Ridley said she cried with relief at the news that the director of The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams, would come back for the next one. And Abrams offered his own subtle criticism of Johnson’s film:
Abrams praised “The Last Jedi” for being “full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “it’s a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don’t think that people go to ‘Star Wars’ to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’”
Winner, winner, chicken dinner, delivered to Abrams in one of his beloved “mystery boxes.” Maybe Star Wars . . . didn’t need to be subverted or deconstructed. A lot of folks decreed that criticism of The Last Jedi reflected “toxic fandom” or anti-feminism, or some sort of delayed-reaction hostility to the cast’s ethnic diversity that somehow hadn’t bothered anyone in the first film. I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you could find examples fitting that description. But maybe, just maybe . . . it was just an uneven movie that left a lot of fans disappointed! You can love Ridley as an actress and still think the character of Rey seems a little too perfect or think the same of Kelly Marie Tran but find her character of Rose Tico underwritten and unappealing. (Never punish an actor for a screenwriter or director’s bad decisions.)
The Force Awakens showed our old heroes from the original trilogy in a dark place, but they had appeared to have found some new hope for the future. The Last Jedi ended with our heroes in a really grim spot. Han and Luke are gone, and the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher limited what this film could do with Princess Leia.
We’ve seen a lot of movies and television shows that check in with once-beloved heroes decades after we last saw them, and a lot of those creators chose to show that the later years of our heroes had turned out badly. Blade Runner 2047. Rambo: Last Blood. Twin Peaks. You could argue Logan, closing out the X-Men films. The last Terminator movie that brought back Sarah Connor. Maybe throw in that awful Die Hard sequel set in Russia. Star Trek: Picard, Top Gun: Maverick, Bill and Ted Face the Music and Matrix 4 are coming.
Newsflash, creators: we don’t like seeing that the favorite heroes of our childhood turned into bitter and defeated old men. Yes, these kinds of stories have to acknowledge that time passed, and the story usually requires our hero to not be on top of the world; they have to face some great challenge that drives them to go out on one last adventure. But these trendy “dark reboots” inherently state that the previous story’s victory was either short-lived or inconsequential.
Six months after The Last Jedi, Disney released Solo: A Star Wars Story, which pretty much amounted to “The Young Han Solo Chronicles.” I enjoyed that movie a great deal but apparently I was in the minority. This was the lowest-grossing Star Wars movie and apparently the smaller audience represented some sort of backlash to the previous film — never mind that it was a different screenwriter and director, and a different story about different characters. One of the lessons Disney took from Solo’s disappointing numbers was that Star Wars movies shouldn’t come out so frequently; fans need time to build up their hunger so that each movie feels like an event.
Or maybe Star Wars is actually better suited for a different medium. This fall, Disney unveiled The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars show, which is so far terrific. “This is the way” to tell a great Star Wars story. In fact, one wonders if there’s a little surprise in Disney offices at how much the terse tough guy Mando and the unstoppably cute Baby Yoda stole the spotlight from The Rise of Skywalker this autumn.
Maybe this Star Wars movie, which wraps up “the Skywalker saga,” will disappoint. But we know other films will follow, and Disney Plus will follow The Mandalorian with a series that brings back Ewan Macgregor as Obi Wan Kenobi, and a Rogue One prequel series featuring Rebellion spy Cassian Andor and his delightfully snarky droid partner K2S0. Throw enough darts and, eventually, some creative endeavor will hit the target.
Some people might think, “why is Jim writing about Star Wars in his morning newsletter, which is usually about politics?” First, there’s more to life than politics; in fact, William F. Buckley envisioned National Review as being as much about the state of our culture as the state of our politics. You could argue that nothing in our popular culture is bigger than Star Wars. (Maybe the Marvel movies have the strongest claim to the title.) And despite being dismissed as children’s fairy tales with science-fiction trappings and lots of special effects, Star Wars movies had something to say, even if a lot of it was drawn from mythology and myth and Akira Kurosawa samurai films and the works of Joseph Campbell. Star Wars may have debuted during the Carter years and been created by a dyed-in-the-wool man of the left, but they resonated enormously with the Reagan era, a band of underdogs who believed in freedom standing up to an evil empire. Star Wars emphasized that important people can come from humble and unexpected beginnings. Heck, you could argue one of the most influential philosophers in modern society is Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” “Size matters not.” “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
ADDENDUM: Over on The Editors, we talk impeachment and the British elections. In the coming days, we’re scheduled to talk about Christmas memories and the year in review.