I finally got the opportunity to see Seth Gordon’s inexplicably involving documentary, The King of Kong. I wish I had seen it sooner because, as bizarre as the story is, it is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve seen.
Kong is the story of a video game rivalry between upstart Steve Wiebe and gamer-legend Billy Mitchell. Their game: Donkey Kong. Mitchell had held many video game records since the early 1980’s (like Pac-man and Mrs. Pac-man) and had over the years become nothing less than a pompous celebrity. Wiebe is an unemployed family man with no name in the gaming world. The film paints both men in no uncertain light. Mitchell is a jerk, but a popular jerk. Wiebe is kind of a loser, but a loser with heart.
The first part of the movie gives us the background on Mitchell and his rise to fame. We also learn about “Twin Galaxies” (TG), the organization responsible for most of the big gaming tournaments in the country, and the (now officially recognized) source for the Guinness Book of World Records. Director Gordon is setting things up for the arrival of Wiebe. He introduces the establishment (Twin Galaxies and its founder Walter Day) and the “king” (Mitchell). Now, he can usher in Wiebe as the David to their Goliath.
What amazes me now is how upon first meeting each of the rivals, I regarded both as fools. Mitchell is so incredibly high on himself – for being the best at Pac-man! – and Wiebe is introduced as a guy who can never come out on top, and so, after being laid off, he turns to Donkey Kong to fill his hours. Not the two most admirable lead characters.
But Gordon chooses correctly in focusing on Wiebe as the mistreated underdog, struggling to succeed with a supportive family behind him. As the movie rolls on, we only see Mitchell in short, ominous bits, fitting him as the bully – and casting quite a bit of doubt on his integrity.
The basic plot is this: Wiebe sets out to break Mitchell’s record. He does so, but only on a tape, which he sends in to Twin Galaxies. Mitchell, who is tied closely with TG, sends his buddies to take a look at Wiebe’s machine, ostensibly to verify it as a “legal” computer board. Surprise, surprise, they decide that it has been tampered with. The score is discounted.
Wiebe decides to show up at an annual tournament and perform his score live. He challenges Mitchell, who declines to show up. Wiebe practices for months, shows up, and breaks the record. But wait! Mitchell has sent a package; it is a tape of himself setting a new record, one that is even higher than Wiebe’s latest success. Wiebe takes it hard, and feels cheated. So did I. Mitchell has revealed himself not only as a showman, but also an ass. What makes it worse is that the tape is suspicious, static occasionally blurring the score and seeming to jump in time. Yet the TG officials take Mitchell’s word for it that this is “only because it is a copy”.
Wiebe goes back to teaching science (he gets his Master’s and a job at some point over the year), Mitchell to posturing around his BBQ sauce business. But then Walter Day calls, and announces that the Guinness Book wants to officially include video game scores, and TG will be the source. Day decides that there will be one last tournament to establish the scores that they report. Wiebe gets back to practicing.
I won’t reveal how the final tournament ends, but I will say that the choice of camera angles used, especially in these scenes, is masterful in its intent to display Mitchell’s disgusting arrogance.
Throughout the film we are given a fair share of glimpses at Wiebe’s family (Mitchell has two bragging parents and a characterless wife). Wiebe’s wife, Nicole, is astonishingly controlled (at least on camera), and while she makes it clear that she has no great love for her husband’s obsession, she nonetheless supports him and roots for him, even traveling cross country to watch him play. There is one moment, however, that gave a little more insight into what her true feelings may have been. While in the car, their daughter asks Wiebe about the Guinness Book. She then says, “Some people kinda ruin their lives to get in there.” This really took me off guard. That is not something that a ten year-old comes up with; it is something they repeat after overhearing it… probably from her mother. I can’t say that I disagree with this sentiment, though the Wiebe family seems to be intact at the end of the film.
I admit that I hesitated to take the time to see this film simply because I have never had any interest in video games, past our present. But you don’t even have to know how to turn on a computer to love this tale of a man driven to prove himself, whatever the game may be.