Directed by Seth Gordon
The King of Kong thrusts us into the world of competitive arcade gaming. The story takes place mostly around 2005 but deals with games of the 1980s, specifically Donkey Kong. These are games and people two decades behind their time, and this adds a sense of desperation but also innocence to the competition.
Several people we meet, in talking head segments, discuss the appeal of something like Donkey Kong because of its simplicity. it’s a joystick game with only up, down, left and right movements. This simplicity attracts Steve Wiebe to the game and appeals to his light OCD (according to his wife), just as did engineering and as does his drawing and drumming habits. Wiebe is our hero, and he’s a damn good hero at that. He’s an everyman who finds himself sucked into this world almost accidentally.
After being laid off, Wiebe decides to bust out an old Donkey Kong game, set it up in his garage and attempt to beat the world record. If there’s any glory in such an accomplishment, he’s not seeking it out. Though a competitive man, Wiebe does this for himself.
This became a documentary because of director Seth Gordon’s insight into the world that Wiebe would soon find himself in. Gordon used to frequent FunSpot, an arcade hub in New Hampshire and unofficial center of the American gaming world. This community is ruled by Twin Galaxies, an organization led by Walter Day, the video game referee, though as we come to see, his control of the group is more for appearances since he is so easily pushed around by the movie’s villain, Billy Mitchell.
Maybe it’s unfair to call Mitchell the villain, but that’s absolutely what he is. We meet him before anyone else and are told he is the world record holder in Donkey Kong, having set the record years ago. Back then, in 1982, Mitchell set the record in a public event and his ego started swelling almost immediately.
Mitchell is never much of a bad guy, but he’s determined to be right and to win, almost at all costs. When Wiebe does eventually break his record, Mitchell, a member of Twin Galaxies, works to invalidate his score, even sending friends over to the Wiebe household to break apart and inspect Wiebe’s Donkey Kong ‘board.’ His reason for being suspicious, other than jealousy, is that Wiebe was associated with a man Mitchell considered to be a rival.
Now, we hear from both sides, and we’re never given a purely objective view, but damn this whole rivalry is electric. Wiebe is the hero, Mitchell is the villain, and we want the hero to win. It’s that simple.
The nuances mostly concern Mitchell’s insecurity, his conniving to keep his score, his fear of challenging Wiebe in a public match (which Wiebe asks to do), and his general douchebaggery. Wiebe is a human, just a regular old family man, and Mitchell is ego unrestrained.
That’s how we’re made to see it, and I have little reason to see it any other way. I read an interview with the filmmakers and a separate one with Mitchell in which they give conflicting statements on certain events in the film. Mitchell claims he was made to look like the bad guy, and the filmmakers argue that they portrayed everything exactly as they saw it. In one scene, Wiebe plays the game, and Mitchell walks by, the first time we’ve seen them in the same room all movie, and Mitchell ignores his rival, saying “there are some people I rather not spend time with.” It’s a huge slight to Steve, who said, in a friendly manner, “Hey Billy,” before this. And you’re probably sitting there yelling at the tv like this is a reality show.
The effect comes across, what we’re meant to feel, but Mitchell argues that this was edited to distort the truth. Upon a rewatch I find little reason to doubt the scene as presented in the movie.
I could go on forever. I spent a hour or so pouring through interviews about the film, but that’s only because this is one of those stories that really ropes you in. You don’t just want to see the hero win, you need to see him win. God, I just love Steve Wiebe so much and dislike Mitchell just as much.
I think that’s because we all know people like Billy Mitchell. Again, it’s unfair to vilify him too much because this is a real person. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s someone who seems to need a series of disciples around him, people to tell him he’s right because that’s all he can afford to hear. He’s nice to many of the people in the film, but these are people who bow to him. They worship him, so they don’t see the real Billy Mitchell just as we don’t. He’s a larger than life figure for them, as some kind of God, and for us, as the villain.
One of these ‘disciples’ is Steve Sanders, a friend of Billy’s from the early 80s and a former competitor. Sanders speaks of Billy like he saved his life. Sanders had lied about a particular score, Billy called him out and challenged him, and then Billy destroyed him. Sanders laughs about it now, saying that Billy helped make him the man he is today. I can’t imagine what that did to Billy’s ego.
They remain friends in King of Kong, and as Billy hides from Wiebe (even when the arcade at which he plays is in Billy’s hometown), Sanders calls to update him on Wiebe’s score. By the end, though, Sanders admits that he finds Wiebe quite likable and has no doubts about his integrity as a gamer, going against Billy’s claim that Wiebe’s world record score should be invalidated.
I need to backtrack for a moment, damn this movie riled me up.
So Billy has the world record, Wiebe beats it at home and sends in the tape, only for Mitchell to discredit it. There’s an opportunity to go beat the world record at FunSpot, on a console recognized as valid by the league, so Wiebe goes in hopes of challenging Billy.
Billy nevers shows up, but Wiebe sets the world record for highest score in a public setting. That same exact night, Billy mails in a tape of him beating Wiebe’s world record, though there are red flags that the tape may have been altered (and I believe it definitely f*ckin’ was). When Wiebe’s record was called into question, Twin Galaxies spent a longtime deliberating before invalidating it. This time Billy pressures Walter Day into accepting the score right then and there because they’re buddies. Dude, get out of here, what the hell.
So Wiebe gives up, frustrated with the Twin Galaxies organization, and he goes home until 9 months later when the documentary crew tells him about an opportunity to play in a sort of tournament in Florida for a chance to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Wiebe has to go, and he’s supported by his incredibly patient wife this entire time, and he hopes Billy will too. Billy doesn’t, not until the end when he walks through but doesn’t play.
So Wiebe fails to beat the world record, the movie ends, and then we’re told that he did after filming was completed. The documentary tells us that Wiebe now holds the record for highest recorded score (at home) and highest public score. Go Wiebe.
King of Kong is so compelling because of the characters involved. It’s almost too good to be true. Wiebe is extremely competitive, even pushed to tears when he feels like he’s failed, and he’s just an all around likable dude. The fact that he has a family, gets laid off, goes back to school to become a teacher, etc. all makes us root for him. Then there’s his wife, Nicole, who speaks so glowingly of him as a good person and is extremely supportive of this drive which she admits she finds pretty foolish. Because it is foolish, it’s a game, but then we meet the other people who take it so seriously. Something so innocent is made so damning.
King of Kong is riveting, and you wonder just how many other equally as engaging stories there are out there in the world right now. The documentary makes you care so passionately about something so inane.
Lastly, this from director Seth Gordon in regards to the potentially unfair representation of Billy Mitchell:
“When we first met Billy, he was amazing, and everyone talked about him like he was amazing and perfect, and this sort of gamer of the century—there was a whole sort of rehearsed legend of Billy that we were very persuaded by, and very excited by. And when we were putting the piece together, we arced out our own experience of him, including, as time went on, the sort of hypocrisy of his actions. Not because we were interested in painting him in one way or another, just showing what we witnessed. Also, we were part of an elaborate chess game that he’s been playing for 20 years with this group of guys, and we were uncovering stuff that I don’t think he wanted uncovered. That’s a really interesting puzzle to pick apart as a documentarian.”
Up Next: There Will Be Blood (2007), Black Panther (2018), The Producers (1967)