If a whole universe of meaning and countless reams of undergrad theses can spring from a novel that tracks one day of the meanderings of a man in 1904 Dublin, then, in theory, there’s no reason why a documentary about crossword puzzles or Double Dutch can’t offer the same. But most of the films that have followed in the footsteps of "Spellbound," which found nail-biting suspense and a revealing cross-section of America in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, skate by on the preciousness of their subject matter, offering peeks into pockets of subculture that are almost uniformly entertaining if lightweight, innocuous enough that only the most grumpy of critics would grumble about them.
Seth Gordon‘s "The King of Kong" is set in the world of competitive classic video gaming, and it could have been another example of the quirkumentary, if Gordon hadn’t stumbled onto a struggle between two men that can only be described as epic. The battlefield is Donkey Kong, which we’re assured by a series of talking heads is among the most difficult 80s arcade games, the prize is the record for high score, and the competitors are so good they defy fiction (though they’ll get their chance at that, as Gordon is now attached to direct a narrative version of his film). On one side, there’s Billy Mitchell, the "Video Game Player of the Century" and classic gamers’ big celebrity/demigod. He set his first high score at Donkey Kong at a 1982 Life Magazine shoot, when he decided to punish a pretender to the throne (Steve Sanders, who becomes one of Mitchell’s best friends) by publicly challenging him and obliterating his score. The heavy-browed Mitchell has shoulder-length locks, a remarkably well-endowed wife who’s a sight gag unto herself, and a hot sauce empire. He is comically and fantastically villainous, holed up in Hollywood, FL, where he conducts the war to protect his record via covert phone calls and packages dispatched by minions.
His challenger is Steve Wiebe, a Seattle-area failed musician turned fired Boeing employee, a vague, good-natured family man who resembles a blurry Nathan Fillion, who has never distinguished himself at anything in his life, and who decided to work toward the Donkey Kong record during his unemployment to create some kind of goal in his nebulous day-to-day existence. Practicing in his garage while his children clamor around him, he records himself breaking Mitchell’s record and sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies, the Ottumwa, IA-based hall of video game records, calling down a small-scale firestorm of gamer drama and the roundabout opposition of Mitchell himself.
There are other memorable characters, among them Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, who acknowledges that he’s running the organization now more out of sense of obligation to its small but dedicated community than out of any personal enjoyment. There’s Robert Mruczek, the put-upon referee who screens hours of tapes of people playing in order to confirm scores. And there’s our personal favorite, Roy Shildt, an agitator who goes by "Mr. Awesome" and who still harbors a grudge over an unacknowledged ’80s achievement at Missile Command.
Packaged with era-appropriate graphics, "The King of Kong" kicks off with a quick trip through the backgrounds of its two adversaries and of Twin Galaxies, but settles in to something less obtrusive as its story unfolds, with the exception of some funny but ham-handed music choices (including "You’re the Best"). What truly separates "The King of Kong" from films like it, and what makes it almost exceptional, is that it circumvents the tired homily recited by so many other doc directors getting a chuckle at the expense of their subjects â€” laughing with, not at, et cetera. There is never a question of or an apology for the imminent importance of gaming in the lives of these people, a fixation that, as one tells the camera, has nothing to do with enjoyment and everything to do with having one’s name on that record board. Gordon is unfailingly gentle with his subjects, even, in a way, with Mitchell, who comes across as a right bastard, but also as someone well aware of his role as the community’s larger than life superhero, the one who makes money, the one who got the girl. In challenging him, Wiebe posed a threat to entire fiercely protective group that bristled at the arrival of a self-taught ringer from out on the West Coast, someone they’d never heard of, someone who wasn’t one of them.
On his way out to Florida to prove himself in a tournament and hopefully face down his Kong nemesis, Wiebe is asked innocently by his young daughter about why people are willing to destroy themselves to get in the Guinness Book of World Records. There’s no reply â€” it is, on a larger scale, no lofty goal. But Wiebe, hunched over his arcade cabinet on a stool for hours, is a curiously noble figure, one who’s struggled against unlikely odds and long-haired adversaries to prove that there is something in his life at which he’s the best.
"The King of Kong" opens in limited release on August 17th.
+ "The King of Kong" (Picturehouse)