The King of Kong chronicles the tail of two grand masters of Donkey Kong trying to lay claim to the all-time high score.
By Helin Jung
A score is nothing but a number, but it sure can say a lot about you. It can put your name in a record book, approve your mortgage application or get you into the college of your dreams. So what happens when a string of six or seven digits has the power to define you? It's a question that filmmaker Seth Gordon seeks to answer in his new documentary, The King of Kong, currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
For months, Gordon followed two men and their camps: legendary "Gamer of the Century" Billy Mitchell and (former) total no-name Steve Wiebe. Mitchell, the one-time world record holder for arcade-platform Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Pac-Man, maintains a God-like persona among those in his gaming community (a group of "like, 30 dudes," according to Gordon). Wiebe, on the other hand, is a junior high school math and science teacher in Redmond, Washington, and had lived a largely winless life prior to 2005 -- freezing on the pitcher’s mound at the state championship, playing in a band that never got an audience.
It was in 2005 that the unemployed Wiebe, some 20-odd years after Mitchell first achieved the DK world record, decided to break it. He managed to do so on a machine in his garage, leaving Mitchell's unfathomably awesome score in the dust. Wiebe documented all the elevator-jumping on video and submitted it to the official record-keeping outfit of video gaming, Twin Galaxies, which, coincidentally, lay prostrate in adoration at Mitchell's feet. What followed was a double-sided odyssey by one Steve Wiebe, who took a stand and decided not to be "chumpatized" anymore, and by another Billy Mitchell, who needed to protect a legacy and an image that were fast fading.
Gordon, a gamer himself, constructed a gripping (seriously) allegory of little guy versus giant -- Jumpman outsmarting Donkey Kong, if you will. He exposes his deep empathy for those 30 dudes, and shows us that there's more to Mitchell than a perfect Pac-Man score (like an intense Messiah complex, for instance), more to Wiebe than a keen eye for patterns and certainly more to the devoted gamer than strained thumbs and hunched shoulders. It makes Gordon's ugly-looking film rather moving. Kong captivates in its adoration for the subculture of competitive gaming, and thankfully, is just as quirky as the people who can't get enough of a monkey throwing a barrel.