Why Is King Kong Burning? | Memory and the War In Vietnam

Steven Pinker talks about the “expanding circle of empathy”. Today’s video is an exercise in that. The concept, as I understand it, goes something like this. When we were all living in caves, we looked out for our family and that was about it. As societies develop, the circle of empathy expands. We look out for our tribe, our city, and over the past couple hundred years or so we’ve begun to see entire nation states as “our people”. Many of the challenges and victories of the past couple decades can be explained through this concept. Fights over everything from civil rights for other races and orientations, to environmentalism and animal rights are generated by differing ideas of the circle of empathy.

I’m generally a fan of expanding the circle. As I get older and crustier, I’m sure to object to stuff new generations come up with, but as of 2017, I’m pretty down with most expansion efforts. There’s one in particular that I try to get out ahead of. I spend a lot of time thinking about geopolitics. So much of what is written on the topic in the US fails to see things from the other side. It’s not that I’m not patriotic, it’s just that I think US interests are better served when we understand how other people are feeling. An expanding circle of empathy is a good in and of itself, but there’s also a utility there.

This video started off within one circle of empathy, and ends up in a broader one. Empathy is hard. The makers of Kong: Skull Island may have worried about the first circle, but as their actions and this video show, they put zero thought into the second.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So why is King Kong burning?

On Sunday I saw Kong: Skull Island, a very well executed action thriller. All the pieces are in the right places. From the thrilling CGI fight scenes, to the soundtrack ABOUT THAT SOUNDTRACK…, to the random Chinese actress for the Asian markets, to an uncharacteristically well deployed Samuel L. Jackson, it all works. Most importantly it’s got a good script. But something bugged me.

This movie uses the US war in Vietnam in a new way. When movies about Vietnam started coming out in the 1970’s they were always deeply respectful dramas. For a little while there, making a Vietnam movie was as good a ticket to the best picture Oscar as the Holocaust is. 2008’s Tropic Thunder isn’t really an exception. It’s a comedy about a bunch of out of touch hollywood types trying to get Oscars by making a Vietnam movie. It nicely skewers the way war is turned into prestige entertainment. It makes a point.

Kong isn’t making a point. It’s just having fun. It deploys some of the era’s most beloved protest songs for battles with a giant monkey. The disillusioned soldiers we know from Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, are cannon fodder for our amusement. I enjoyed the film, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Do baby boomers think this was in poor taste? How do my parents and aunts and uncles feel about this use of the great national trauma of their youth? How would a Vietnam veteran see this movie?

Aren’t I clever for pointing this out? Actually no. Not at all.

And I only figured this out because King Kong is burning. In Vietnam.

With the MFF I try very hard to see outside of the US perspective. It’s not that I’m not patriotic, it’s just that I believe that protecting the United States requires understanding the concerns of other people. And I’ve just spent two minutes obsessing about how the United States feels about its war in Vietnam.

The war in Vietnam killed 58,209 US soldiers. It killed well over 1,000,000 men women and children in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And I’m worried about how US Baby Boomers feel about Kong: Skull Island?

Last Week the movie’s promoters staged a big premiere in Vietnam. The marketing strategy included a Chinese actress, and a 16 foot monkey. China invaded Vietnam after we left by the way, and remains the largest threat to the country.

The monkey burned down. I don’t know if it was arson or not. But it was certainly poetry.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t see the movie. It is a lot of fun. But we should all think harder about history and how we use it. That’s what a burning King Kong taught me.

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