Rogue One doesn’t leave audiences arguing about much, but one point of contention is the role of Galen Erso. Galen was the leading scientist on the Empire’s greatest weapon of mass destruction, and the Rebellion and the Empire alike treat him as necessary for its development - but Galen insists that it would have been without him anyway (and that working on it allowed him to sabotage the project from within.) We must confront this unpleasantness before moving to our discussion of the themes of fathers and god.
Yes, Galen was responsible for the Death Star.
We want to believe him, because he is framed as a good character, so his words should be trustworthy, whereas the Director is portrayed as an idiot and the Rebellion who wants Galen’s head is just uninformed and bloodthirsty. And we want all the people we like to have clean hands, we want his sabotage of the Death Star to come at no real cost. But “they’re just that insane!” aside, neither Krennik or the rebel general have any reason to lie about this. Whereas for Galen, telling himself “I’m not really helping the Empire kill billions” is the only way he can be okay with himself, while not being killed (possibly tortured) or having his family threated. Of course he would lie about this.
“You were always a terrible liar.”
“I did the one thing no one expected. I learned to lie. I lied.”
This is part of the extremely efficient characterization seen throughout Rogue One: without a huge explanation of that time Galen lied to pass some exam or escape some harrowing moral choice, but with just a couple lines, we have Galen associated with denying the truth of things. Galen is a liar, often a bad one. His motivations are human and good but his words are not to be trusted.
But this is a movie, not a novel. In a movie the rule should be to let exposition stand in contrast to the visuals on screen. What do the uniquely cinematic elements tell us about Galen’s role in the Death Star?
Without doubt, the most visually arresting sequence in Rogue One is the end of the Jedha act, where we cut from Jyn watching the video from her father, to Imperial officers activating the Death Star for the first time in orbit, to the destruction of the Jedha temple, and back and forth through them. In particular it cuts from Galen apologizing deeply to Jyn for what he had to do, immediately to a faceless laser-engineer pushing a complicated array of buttons that activates the continent breaking weapon. The visual link is to identify Galen with the engineer (and given that we don’t know about the research base yet, Galen might as well be that guy.) His entire explanation to Jyn leads into the wholesale destruction, like when a comic book villain explains his master plan to the too-late heroes, intercut with shots of the bombs going off (even if in literal time the explosions happened thirty five minutes ago.)
This scene is heartbreaking. We are supposed to love Galen and be furious at him all at once. Edwards is using artistic tricks to make us feel what Jyn feels. All of this loses its power if the reality is “Galen Erso did nothing wrong.”
But being responsible for it doesn’t mean he should be held personally accountable for it.
The praise of Rogue One is that it finally shows what interstellar warfare is like for the many non-elite actors. The space truckers, the ground crews, the rebels of rebels, the prisoners… and the collaborators. The people who know they are helping an evil empire but who are threatened with death or worse if they disobey. What is it like for them, how do they live with themselves?
If a system puts a gun to your head and says "build the worst weapon ever"... well maybe you'll defy it and tell them to pull the trigger, but the system can come back the next day with cleverer and more compelling coercion. A system can craft a universe where your entire identity and that of everyone you care about is based on screwing others over you - eventually most people will conform. Castigating them as moral weaklings does nothing to stop the actual problem, an Empire which breaks good people to its will.
Instead of denying it, the hero in this case pushes through the system, giving it what it wants but too much of what it wants: an efficient weapon but also destruction for itself. Ashes to ashes, they all fall down.
That is the arc of Galen Erso. Jyn's arc is how she deals with this.