The sporting world has known its share of classic rivalries: Ali and Foreman, Evert and Navratilova, Barkley and Godzilla. To this storied pantheon of titans we can now add Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, the crème de la crème of competitive Donkey Kong players.
“The King of Kong” begins by tracing the history of competitive video gaming, which arguably began in 1982. Mitchell, in his early 20s at the time, racked up the world record score on Donkey Kong (over 800,000 points). Mitchell’s record stood, undisturbed, until 2005. That’s when Redmond, Washington’s Wiebe, recently laid off from Boeing, happened upon the online video game records repository Twin Galaxies and saw Mitchell’s score. In spite of having a wife and kids, and looking for a way to turn around a run of bad luck dating back to high school, Wiebe decided he have a go at the record.
Director Seth Gordon couldn’t have put together two more diametrically opposed rivals if he tried. Mitchell, currently a restaurateur who still wears his hair and dresses like its 1985, is such a monumental douchebag of a human being that, if “The King of Kong” ever gets remade as a narrative feature as rumored, no one will accept his character. His ego and sense of self-satisfaction at being the biggest fish in the relatively small world of competitive classic videogaming are laughable, yet his villainy (cozying up to Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, submitting suspicious tapes of his video game achievements) is undeniable.
Wiebe, on the other hand, is a guy who’s been kicked in the teeth more than most. He’s the character you can’t help but pull for, thrilling to his achievements (he scores over a million on Donkey Kong) and empathizing with his setbacks (the score is later invalidated). In the meantime, we meet other personalities in the competitive video gaming community (Mitchell protégé and archetypal game nerd Brian Kuh, the inexplicable Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt), and Wiebe’s family and friends, who don’t entirely understand his fixation, but support him nonetheless.
Gordon has made a most improbable film: a documentary – about frigging Donkey Kong of all things – that is as compelling and involving as the original “Rocky.” I can’t recommend “The King of Kong” highly enough. A doc that genuinely moves you is rare enough, one that – literally – makes you stand up and cheer is truly unique. It’s not just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Period.