King of Kong: Review

As documentaries have gained in popularity over the past thirty years or so, an interesting notion has begun to take hold. It’s the notion that, “what you’re seeing on the screen is the result of heavy editing and cuts to try and tell the story that the director wanted to tell.” We’ve been told that, given the same footage, another director can paint with a different brush and completely reverse the rolls of the protagonist and the antagonist.

To this notion, I say “bull”. While there are certainly ways of using musical cues and the elimination of certain footage to garner a certain emotional response, when people know they are being filmed for a documentary, they have every opportunity to present their best image. And often times they feel that they’re doing so. When I pick up a karaoke microphone, I actually think I’m the closest thing to Chris Martin there is. (Of course, an audio recording of me might tell a very different story.) No, folks — contrary to popular opinion, tape doesn’t lie. It’s we, the people, who do the lying. It’s just that if we’d realize how damning the video footage would be and how many times it would be played and replayed again, perhaps we would have decided against standing in front of a camera in the first place. (Miss Teen USA South Carolina 2007, I’m looking at you.)

When I first decided to check out King of Kong, even as a pretty hardcore gamer, I expected to see the biggest “nerdfest” ever. (And in some ways, I did.) I knew that this was the story about a long-time holder of the Donkey Kong world record being challenged by a new contender, but I didn’t think I’d walk away with this kind of emotion. To refer to King of Kong as “a story about a video game high score” is to cheapen what is now one of my favorite films of this year. Yes, the subject of King of Kong deals with the attempt to beat the long-standing Donkey Kong world record. But besides the video game content, there’s a really rich and emotional story to be found. Digging a bit deeper, I’d go as far as saying the film uncovers an interesting commentary about competition, the corners that we cut in order to stay on top, and how your approach to competition it can affect your life.

The film follows a moment in the lives of Billy Mitchell, a holder of several video game world records (although over the years some of his records have been contested and beaten) including Pac Man, Burgertime, Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong, (of course) and Steve Wiebe, a guy from Seattle who was looking to beat the Donkey Kong high score.

Without spoiling the film, Billy Mitchell’s world record had stood since 1982. Steve Wiebe, on a machine in his home (with his two children nagging him in the background) managed to beat the high score and sent in a video tape of the game to be considered for the world record. …and then things begin to get interesting…. Lots of favoritism, deception, allegiances made (and broken). Simply put, this is a very incestuous group and simply beating the high score and sending in a video tape would prove to be more difficult than it sounds in order to make it into the history books.

The biggest contrast in the film is the cut between the personalities of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. I don’t think I’ve seen personalities that were such polar opposites since I saw Ali take on a young George Foreman in When We Were Kings. By his peers, Billy is pretty much lauded as the hero of classic gaming. They literally adore him. They talk about him reverently. They gather around a TV screen — just to watch one of his personally filmed recordings playing a video game. (This has to be the geekiest bunch around. They even knew to rotate the TV so that it was landscape — evidence that they must watch these tapes regularly). On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Steve Wiebe. Steve is just a guy who has a single video game cabinet in his house and has probably just gotten better over the years due to repetition (since that appears to be one of the only games he has.) One may argue that it was in the director’s best interest to paint Steve Wiebe as the hero of the film. In my opinion, it doesn’t take a lot of cuts and edits to make us fall in love with Wiebe. In a film full of people who obsess about this classic gaming addiction, Steve Wiebe shows himself to be humane on more than a few occasions. He’s had his share of disappointments over the years at his efforts in sports and music. He has a family and appears to be a loving and good dad. He even allows the audience to see him cry — something his friends indicate that he has been known to do on occasion. And while he might be just as obsessive as the other folks in the film for traveling hundreds of miles to a central location, just to have his name in the video game “record books”, he’s incredibly humble and humane in this effort.

To contrast, we also meet Billy Mitchell. Billy is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent in The Office or Steve Carell’s portrayal of Michael Scott in the U.S. version. In all three cases, the characters believe that they are cool, hip and that everybody loves them while to the outside viewer, the truth is the exact opposite. And while Billy’s circle may well feel that he’s so worthy of praise, whether he’s better than Steve Wiebe at Donkey Kong is irrelevant. The reality is that he comes off like an incredibly unworthy, pathetic and shameful guy. If there’s anything that I am skeptical about, it’s that the Billy Mitchell that we saw on screen is a real person. Everything about his persona, from his mullet to his almost frightening attempts to get the audience to believe that he’s a “winner” is just pathetic. I would love to discover that Billy was paid to act this way to make the film more interesting. If this is a real account, I hope that this is the reflection in the mirror that gets him to come down to Earth, just a bit.

You wouldn’t think that in the world of so-called “geeky” video games (and again, I’m one of these gamers!) that there are allegiances, injustices and back-biting. But it’s amazing the lengths that people will go to in order to preserve the memory of their hero. It’s shameful. It’s ridiculous. It’s entertaining! I got a big thrill out of watching this movie. And video games have very little to do with it.

King of Kong is an amazing film. At just under eighty minutes, it’s short and gets to its point in a hurry. This is a wonderful film that personifies the notion that ‘winning isn’t everything’ and should make you take inventory of whether or not you approach competition in an ethical manner. Awesome film.


3 Responses to “King of Kong: Review”

  1. June 11, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Billy Mitchell is the ideal video game villain, nappy facial hair and everything

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