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The King of Kong

When I picked up “King of Kong,” I figured that, at best, it would be similar to documentaries like “Trekkies” or “Air Guitar Nation,” films that make us laugh and make us feel superior to the people we’re laughing at. But I was wrong. This movie is so much more. It’s not a comedy disguised as a documentary, it’s a sports movie disguised as a documentary. And one of the best sports movies, period, I’ve seen in a long while.

Remember “Rocky”? Of course you do. Well, Steve Wiebe is the Rocky of joysticks. Recently laid off from his job at Boeing (on the day he signed his mortgage – ouch!) he suffers a crisis of self confidence, and decides he needs to be the best at something – anything. He chooses Donkey Kong. He puts a console in his garage and plays, plays, plays. He diagrams the screens, he borrows his son’s toy drum set to build up his dexterity, and eventually, he beats the all-time record. On tape. As his son cries for him to come wipe his bottom.

Wiebe’s Apollo Creed is Billy Mitchell, the god of this geeky world. With his rich man’s mullet, American flag ties and tight jeans, Mitchell appears to be a cross between a country music star and Dilbert. He set the record for Donkey Kong in 1983, and played the first perfect Pac Man game, whatever that means. Other gamers speak of him in hushed tones, even twenty years after he’s done anything significant with a joystick.

In between these two heavyweights is an organization, to use the word loosely, called Twin Galaxies. These guys ref video games, though I’ve never seen anyone call a foul on the gorilla throwing the barrels. Apparently the job consists, mostly, of promoting Billy Mitchell and watching endless hours of video tape of other people playing video games. And we thought the gamers were the losers.

What follows is classic, if kooky, rivalry material. There are goons, and a supportive (if at times exasperated) wife, and someone named “Mr. Awesome.” There’s a lot of posturing, and buildup to a big showdown. Like Rocky and Apollo, the rivalry works because the rivals are opposites: Mitchell is the engineer of an image, and every step he takes is carefully calculated. Wiebe, on the other hand, is a heart on the sleeve kind of guy, who wouldn’t know a dramatic gesture if it hit him across the head. The documentarians have done an incredible job of being in the right place at the right time; it feels like every five minutes we’re witnessing a conversation that ought to be happening in a back room somewhere.

It’s hard to write stuff this good, this engaging, and yes, this deep. The geeks go to great lengths in the first few minutes of the documentary to have their hobby taken seriously, and really, why not? Is it really harder to hit a guy in the head more time than you get hit than it is to score a million points at Donkey Kong? So if we accept them as serious competitors – all the while laughing at their geekiness, for sure – then we can get on to the joys of watching a great movie about great competitors.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMt3KQqnRzc]
Update: there has been some controversy about the objectivity of “King of Kong.” Billy Mitchell in particular has complained that some scenes are edited to make him look bad, words are put in his mouth, etc. This may be the case. Personally, it doesn’t diminish the value of the film for me one bit. This isn’t a documentary about global warming, after all. It’s about games.


Recommended

  • to almost everyone. It’s just a great story, in the form of a documentary.
  • if you like underdog stories
  • if you like sports movies, and don’t care which sport we’re talking about
  • if you’ve ever gotten past Level 3 on Donkey Kong.

Not Recommended

  • if the idea of grown men staking their reputation to a video game is just unfathomable and repulsive to you
  • if you think “documentary = boring” and nothing’s going to change your mind.
  • if you’re a lifelong Billy Mitchell fan.
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  1. Top Movies of the Decade #83 | GonnaWatchIt.com linked to this post on March 8, 2010

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