Grown Men's Battle For An All-Time High Score Becomes Underdog Sports Saga
Early on in The King of Kong, an avid video gamer declares, "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't take drugs." The arcade is his only habit, and he feels superior to those with more physically destructive, chemical addictions, though a later piece of footage might inspire you to question that judgment. Videotaping himself, gamer Steve Wiebe ignores his young son's cries to change his diaper--even the rather direct, "Daddy, don't play"--on his way to a million-point Donkey Kong score. By the end of this documentary, however, such gaming devotion looks perfectly comprehensible, if not entirely justifiable.
Depicting the battle between Wiebe and rival Billy Mitchell for the all-time highest Donkey Kong score, director Seth Gordon draws on time-honored narrative techniques, including the last-minute twist, to fashion an inspirational sports tale. You might suspect that The King of Kong is a disguised mockumentary, since its heroes and villains are so readily identifiable and its plot's arc so gripping and full of unexpected turns. All the same, its freshness stems from the fact that it depicts the struggles of real people. Were it fiction, it might feel drawn too neatly from the example of Rocky.
Steve Wiebe is Kong's everyschlub underdog. A failed athlete and musician, he lost his job at Boeing the day he bought a house. He is happily married, a devoted family man (when not playing video games), and he landed back on his feet as a science teacher. Donkey Kong is his hobby; he owns a machine, playing it in his garage.
His competitor Billy Mitchell, now in his early 40s, has been a video-game champion for the past 25 years. As a teenager, he set the record for high Donkey Kong scores. He now runs a successful hot sauce business. Sporting a mullet and an ego the size of Texas, he's the kind of villain you can safely hiss. Nevertheless, he's well-connected within the small world of competitive video gaming, while Wiebe is an outsider whose name constantly gets mispronounced by others. In fact, Wiebe's main gamer friendship backfires upon him, drawing suspicion that his home Donkey Kong machine has been modified to make it easier.
One of the most valuable tasks accomplished by recent American documentaries has been shining a light onto our country's myriad subcultures. On the surface, the real-world significance of adult video gamers is nil and, at times, the sheer volume of geekdom displayed in Kong is overwhelming. While Gordon doesn't mock his subjects, the movie is likely to draw uncomfortable laughter; eventually, it makes itself signify as something greater than a nerdfest. Even in the tiny microcosm of competitive gaming, it shows how the powerful get to make their own rules.
On some level, Wiebe's quest to find a task at which he can succeed is something with which everyone can empathize. The King of Kong is filled with a nostalgia for adolescence; if Wiebe is something of a perpetual teenager, the movie never passes judgment on this state of mind. Early-1980s arcade games such as Donkey Kong now evoke a state of innocence, compared to today's more technologically sophisticated machines. The New Hampshire arcade where The King of Kong's final showdown takes place is a refuge for men who've just entered middle age, not a hangout for present-day kids.
At worst, The King of Kong may settle for simplistic formula--a division of the world into good and evil, evoking the Reagan era during which Donkey Kong was first introduced--but it's constantly suspenseful. One reason it goes down so smoothly is that Mitchell is self-aware enough to know that he comes across as an arrogant jerk--in fact, he plays it up. Wiebe appears less self-conscious about the camera's presence, which makes him more sympathetic. His naiveté is part of his charm. The charge of fixing his machine seems absurd, while you instantly suspect that the odd gaps in Mitchell's videotape of a Donkey Kong game are editing tricks. Does the all-American boy defeat Kong's Darth Vader? You'll have to watch to find out, but regardless of the final destination, the documentary's journey fascinates.