Crowd-pleasing documentary about two adult men in the 21st century who battle it out for the world record in the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong.
Director Gordon skews the facts a little in order to give us the year's best screen villain: Billy Mitchell, the appallingly arrogant über-geek who had held the record since 1982 (and is also the world champion in several other arcade games, including Pac Man). Mitchell, with his silly patriotic ties, country-star long hair, and sleazy self confidence, is the type of guy you just want to see lose, and lose big. And who better to steal his crown than the quiet, even-tempered Steve Wiebe, who took up Donkey Kong in college and who, after losing his job, racks up a score to threaten Mitchell's comfortable lead?
These two polar opposites – they even come from opposite corners of the country: Mitchell from Hollywood, Florida, Wiebe from Redmond, Washington – make for great drama as they struggle to outdo each other, even if they never officially meet. And while the film doesn't exactly lead up to The Big Ultimate Contest, there's still lots of great suspense as to see who will come out on top. (Of course the real world continues even after the film concludes, and the Donkey Kong record is still trading off between the two gamers as I write this – so I'm not spoiling the ending exactly.)
What The King of Kong is really about, however, is geek exclusivity. We've all seen those coming-of-age movies where the high school outcast has to outwit bullying jocks and/or cheerleaders in order to realize his or her potential. But in reality, those high school outcasts can grow up to be mean, cliquish, astoundingly petty adults. Such is the world of the video game record holders, a collection of superdorks straight out of Central Casting who have crowned Billy Mitchell their king, and gleefully do his bidding.
Enter the outsider, Wiebe (whose name the powerful arcade referee refuses to pronounce correctly), an ordinary joe who himself played sports in high school and was likely a frat boy, and who tries to infiltrate their tight-knit mob. The adolescent coldness with which these grown men treat Wiebe is palpable, and for me – as a person forever trapped between the nerds and the norms – accurately capturing this environment is The King of Kong's greatest achievement. And even if, in real life, Mitchell is as much of a caring family man as Wiebe, and Wiebe is as much of a competitive, obsessive freak as Mitchell, that doesn't distill the film's message, so I'll forgive Seth Gordon a little creative license.