The amazing thing about a good documentary, is it can make the most trivial of subjects seem hugely important. While watching The King of Kong, I found myself getting very involved, annoyed, upset and satisfied while watching two middle-aged guys battle it out for the right to call themselves the best Donkey Kong player in the world. When my wife who was sitting on the couch with me, but not really watching the movie, asked me what it was about, she thought it was about the stupidest idea for a film she'd ever heard; but I caught her getting ever so slightly in to it over the top of her laptop. Me, who grew up with video games, who worshiped over the shoulders of the best players on the block; I'm ready to call it my all time favorite documentary. At the very least, the most entertaining documentary I've ever seen.
I think what pulled me in was the classic battle between the champ and the under-dog. I could easily identify with Steve Wiebe, he's like most of us, good at a variety of things, but he's never been good enough to be called the best. It's something each of us strives for in life, to be the very best at something, and to be recognized for it. So what if Steve's dream involves a bunch of outdated digital characters; his dream is to be the world recorder holder for Donkey Kong, and I want to see him achieve that dream.
Standing in his way is Billy Mitchell. Now whether or not Billy is as big of a jerk as he comes across in the film is debatable, but for the sake of cinema, the filmmakers behind The King of Kong set him up to be the perfect villain for Steve to overcome. He's been the reigning champ of Donkey Kong since the early 80's, when Time magazine held a competition between the self-acclaimed-greatest video game players in the world. Billy set himself apart then, and is still the gold standard now.
He's become a sort of god among the geeks of the classic video game world. At the center of this universe is Twin Galaxies, they've been keeping track of the best video game players, long before there was the Internet. Everyone at Twin Galaxies knows and respects Billy; they covet his game playing skills and his well coiffed mullet. So when Steve Wiebe shows up out of nowhere with a video tape of him beating the Donkey Kong world record on his home machine, their universe is torn asunder. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? And how can we take his record down?
Soon officials are crawling all over his Seattle house, taking his machine apart, and finally declaring him disqualified. It's disheartening to see Steve's dream fall apart so easily, but there's much more to come, I've only covered the first act of the film. What follows is more fascinating and exciting than most Hollywood action films. First Steve must prove himself worthy and travels to great lengths to do so, meeting many a strange character along his path, and in the end he must overthrow an evil king.
The King of Kong is a stupendous achievement. It takes this little known faction of the world and makes it endlessly entertaining, they go to great lengths to make us care about Donkey Kong, bringing in all kinds of experts explaining how it might be the toughest video game on the planet. More importantly they give us a hero to cheer for and a villain to hate, a fulfilling character arc, and leave us with questions and arguments to debate within ourselves. It couldn't have turned out better if the story had been scripted from the beginning.
Director Seth Gordon bursts on to the scene, and from the looks of it has turned his good fortune into a Hollywood romantic-comedy called Four Christmases starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Which is a little disappointing, I'd rather see him take on something more challenging, another documentary maybe, but you have to strike while the iron's hot. And the film remains to be seen, maybe it too will be wonderful. For now, I'm a big fan.