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August 20, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | August 20, 2007 |

Like many males who grew up in the 1980s, I wasted far too many hours in arcades. (My hangout of choice was the mellifluously named Tony’s Pizza Machine.) Today, the only vestige of my fervor is an inability to walk past Ms. Pac Man without giving the old gal a workout. (Turns out it’s impossible to metaphorically speak of Ms. Pac Man without sounding creepy.) I’m good enough to impress people and occasionally even attract a crowd, and it causes me no small amount of shame to admit the level of gratification this provides, but I know that the world is full of gamers — like those featured in The King of Kong — who would howl with laughter at my paltry skills.

Seth Gordon’s documentary is a heavy-handed but consistently hysterical and ultimately moving chronicle of two men vying to be the world champion of Donkey Kong. Throughout, Gordon capitalizes on a fact that hounds the increasingly tired genre of “mockumentary”: Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s also much, much funnier.

Meet Billy Mitchell. In 1982, as a teenager with a wispy mustache and a smattering of acne, Mitchell was prominently featured in a Life magazine spread about the nation’s best video gamers. In 2007, the pimples are gone, the mustache (and the near-mullet north of it) is robust, and Billy manages over his restaurant and hot sauce business with the posture and braggadocio of a professional wrestler. (In fact, he bears a strong resemblance to Randy “Macho Man” Savage. I was also a pro wrestling fan as a child. The shame deepens.) Despite his thriving business, though, Mitchell’s still proudest of (and most defined by) his Donkey Kong prowess. This might make him sympathetic if he didn’t also come across as a world-class jerk, wearing ties that feature the Statue of Liberty, crassly bragging every chance he gets, and at one point summing up the controversy that his personality causes by comparing himself to “the abortion issue.”

Still, he’s got game. His score of 874,300 in 1982 remained more than 300,000 points better than his next closest rival for more than two decades, and it seemed safe from overthrow, since Donkey Kong is the most difficult of the classic games. As Mitchell tersely puts it, “The average Donkey Kong game lasts less than a minute. It’s absolute brutality.”

But from the mists of the Pacific Northwest there emerges a challenger, Steve Wiebe. He’s the opposite of Mitchell in every way, a soft-spoken, clean-shaven father of two in Redmond, Washington, who’s never caught a break in life. His promising baseball career was cut short by injury; he played in a rock band that was ignored during the grunge explosion; he was laid off at Boeing on the same day he signed papers for a new house. The guy makes Charlie Brown look like Tony Robbins.

Of course, this makes it incredibly easy to root for him. There hasn’t been an underdog story with this clear a crowd favorite since The Karate Kid. (There was a stunning moment when the jaded New Yorkers around me started to cheer. The only other time I’ve heard a Manhattan audience do that was over the closing credits of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, and then they were just cheering their own righteousness.) Gordon hams it up by playing The Cure’s maudlin “Pictures of You” over the montage that introduces Wiebe’s sensitivity and failures. (One friend of Steve’s says that he’s seen him cry more often than any other man he knows.) And he shamelessly takes the opposite route later on, blaring “Eye of the Tiger” over Steve practicing on the Donkey Kong machine in his garage. But all of this audience manipulation is forgivable, because Gordon has stumbled upon a truly lopsided tale. Yes, Mitchell’s tough-guy attitude is an obvious defense against vulnerability, and there’s complexity there, but you spend the movie’s 80 minutes just wanting to give Steve a hug.

You also spend them laughing at both co-stars and the rich cast of geeks that surrounds them, from Walter Day, the official keeper of video-game records (the Guinness Book calls him for help) who says all gamers hope for a pretty girl to come up and say, “Hi, I see you’re good at Centipede,” to Brian Kuh, a young acolyte of Mitchell’s who humbly envisions himself toppling the record one day. One of the movie’s richest scenes follows Kuh’s reaction to a tremendous game by another player — he’s clearly both deeply jealous and indescribably excited about it, his inner competitor and his inner fanboy doing vicious battle.

In the end, though, there’s plenty of drama concerning who will come out on top. The King of Kong, corny and improbable as this sounds, is about the values of character and integrity trumping the value of coming out on top. As Wiebe’s wife, Nicole, says, “(Steve’s) not cunning, manipulative, and mean. He’s a decent person at heart.” You can only get to know someone so well on the big screen, but that sounded about right to me by the time she said it. I recently read a rumor that a big studio is enticing Gordon to make a fictionalized version of this story for a larger audience. That’s a pity. I urge you to be part of the smaller but smarter audience and do yourself a favor: Go meet the real Steve Wiebe.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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