When you think Star Wars you don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of politics. Sure, you’ve got the admirals aboard the Death Star in A New Hope talking about dissolving the Senate and all that, but honestly, that’s about it. This is a space Western, we’re not dealing with boring politics here.
Unless, of course, you’re thinking of the prequels. The Phantom Menace’s second act has a lot of it, as does Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith. It’s… a bit of a sharp departure from the saga that’s got a lot of laser fights and space ships (although, I’d argue the story’s far deeper than that). In any case, it’s a bit of a bummer.
It’s disappointing, though, because the political arc of the prequels is actually really cool. We start with the Republic, a Galactic coalition with no standing army. The Phantom Menace sees an upstart politician use a trading blockade to wrest power from the established authority, predicating it on a vote of no-power rather than a standard end-of-term election, effectively staging a political coup. Ten years later, in Attack of The Clones, that same politician uses the threat of division to raise an army and start a war, the process of which sees him granted emergency powers and a much stronger political hold. This all culminates in Revenge of The Sith where the Republic becomes an Empire, and the Chancellor an Emperor. And so, famously, liberty dies.
It all makes for compelling political fiction, just presented in a really lousy fashion. Though the political plotline is integral to the story of the Fall of The Republic, it feels tangential to the far more interesting story of the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and Anakin’s fall. Sure, Palpatine’s rise is interesting and all, but what we really care about is the story of Obi-Wan and Anakin, and, yeah, Padmé too. Unfortunately, these characters are affected by the political plots rather than affecting it (save Padmé in Phantom Menace). Taking the focus away from the heroes to focus on senatorial politicking would be like, well, taking the focus away from Jedi adventures to talk lackluster politics.
The problem is that Palpatine’s plot, though empirically interesting, doesn’t really have much to do with the main story involving the Jedi, which is emotionally interesting. Our attention, as an audience, is divided between two divergent plotlines. We’ve gotta pick one to put our interest in, and our interest goes with the people with laser swords.
Here’s the thing, though: As a kid, I didn’t mind the senate scenes too much. Sure, there was a notable lack of lightsabers, but there was a measure of voyeuristic intrigue to be privy to these machinations. Politicking isn’t usually a thing in kids’ media, so it’s pretty neat to get to see it in a movie like Star Wars. Granted, I am also that kid who got into The West Wing with his parents before Revenge of The Sith came out in theaters, so maybe I’m weird like that. In addition, the narrative of a politician using a (manufactured) crisis to seize power is a compelling one that, in better hands, could have really worked into the Star Wars that envisioned the original Empire as an America that had fallen to its baser desires.
Every now and then, I hear people decry the politicking of the Prequels as being the movies’ biggest failure. They’re not a highlight, but the idea is there, though the execution is certainly lacking. Perhaps it would be better served were it more closely intertwined with the characters’ stories, allowing them to take an active role in it all. But then, that would have the mostly-apolitical Jedi getting even more involved in the Senate, which would really only make Palpatine’s accusation of a Jedi coup even more plausible, and really, that’s the last thing he needs.