This article contains spoilers for the opening scene of Kong: Skull Island
World War II was a complicated era in American history. For many, the 1940s represent the peak of American success, and represent everything that the flag is supposed to symbolize: patriotism, integrity, honor, and valor. But for others, it is also impossible to glamorize this decade, or any time in American history, without acknowledging the social issues that prevented many Americans from enjoying the “good life”. The racial and gender issues present throughout American history should be embarrassing to modern Americans. Still, we should not completely ignore WWII, or for that matter the Vietnam War or any other period in America because they upset us. Instead, we should turn to these periods, try to extract the most admirable aspects, and apply them to our present society. Kong: Skull Island excels because while it reminds us that America has always been flawed, it still shows us why we should still believe in this country.
Kong: Skull Island starts with an intense scene that provides the essential self-awareness for a film that spends most of its time glorifying the iconography of the 1940s and 1970s. Two young pilots – one American and the other Japanese – crash into the titular Skull Island during the Vietnam War. We see the American pilot pull out his gun on the Japanese pilot, we recall the animosity that existed between the two rival nations during the war. Without explicitly addressing it in the film, and while keeping it somewhat light-hearted, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts reminds us of the anti-Japanese attitude present for many Americans at this time. As Americans, these sentiments are unforgettable, so the addition of the amusing shootout establishes these historical truths without overstating them.
Later scenes, set in the 1970s, provide similar functions of complicating American history. As the American pilot in the earlier scene, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) remains stuck on the island until he is finally discovered over twenty years later, he comes to develop a friendship with the Japanese pilot. When James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and crew finally discover Hank in the 1970s, we learn more about his relationship with the Japanese pilot. Hank reveals that he had died at the jaws of the lizard-like prehistoric creatures that terrorize Skull Island, but that they became close friends, like brothers. Hank eventually uses his sword to kill his way out of the island. This friendship shows us that while America can be a powerful, and sometimes even belligerent nation, American virtues will always lead the way. Once Hank leaves the island, he returns home to see his wife and now fully grown son. While this might seem cliché in any other film, this scene complicates how Kong: Skull Island represents America in the 1970s.
Several other aspects of the film also succeed in building upon cliché representations of the 1960s and 1970s. The soundtrack features some of the most popular David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and Jefferson Airplane songs of the era. The camera’s frequent close-ups on explosions and men in aviator sunglasses also seems familiar to war films of the era. Even some characters, like anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) or the boisterous army officer Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) are character types we have seen before. Still, Kong feels original and fun.
With today’s political climate, it seems impossible to try and to define American values and the American spirit. It’s hard to remember that people were once proud to be American. Now, everyone is so full of guilt and frustration that all they want to do is escape to Canada and, I don’t know, drink maple syrup.
Kong: Skull Island looks back on the 1940s through Hank Marlow, and on the 1970s through the rest of the film. Kong shows us that the best way to rectify the American spirit that runs through these characters is to reunite the nation. The more we divide, the further we stray from the classic patriotism we all wish to experience.
Kong is not a perfect film, but it is refreshing. It is a much-needed break from the panicked, defensive conversations on CNN and MSNBC. If you won’t watch Kong for some feel-good, all-American, flag-waving scenes, at least watch for Tom Hiddleston’s magically perfect hair, or King Kong’s sweet fighting moves that put Conor McGregor’s to shame.