"That ape is very, very cunning, and he will do what he needs to, to stop you," warns a Funspot regular, squeezed into a t-shirt emblazoned with a geeky kung fu joke. The same could be said of Billy Mitchell, the film's antagonist, a blown-dry Machismo americanus and heir to the Rickey's World Famous [Hot] Sauce empire. Mitchell (above), whose 3-letter high score handle (typically one's initials) is U-S-A (notice the Liberty tie?), is stiff and threatening, at least to the mild-mannered circle he maintains a firm grip on. He regards his "Video Game Player of the [20th] Century" title as a symbol of patriotic heroism. Speaking of symbols, Mitchell's wife's cleavage is paraded on screen like a tangible manifestation of his ballooned ego, which is predictably deflated by Gordon's touching narrative of the first true challenger of the Donkey Kong high score; a score set by Mitchell more than two decades ago.
Our hero, Steve Wiebe (below), is portrayed as a man prone to self-defeat and desperate for his first victory. "I always thought he was a little autistic," remarks Wiebe's mother, who later reads aloud the words "Donkey Kong," as they're dribbled atop a celebration cake, with uncertainty. Wiebe (pronounced wee-bee) is just a nice guy, and a loser; the one who's laid off the day he signs papers for the purchase of his family's suburban Washington home, later to become a "weird" middle school science teacher with squandered gifts in athletics and music. Everyone can sense the danger in him risking the last bits of his unbroken psyche on an impossible high score attempt -- and in not succeeding. People have ruined their lives over such pursuits, observes Wiebe's grade school-aged daughter in a moment of backseat wisdom.
The drama unfolds much like other high-energy sporting events do on film. There are moments of pure elation, only to be burst by teary anguish. Sweat and tears -- but no blood. At one point the Mitchell-Wiebe showdown is likened to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, and then to: "Heckle and Jeckle." The baseball analogy perhaps fits better (though Wiebe and Mitchell lack great history) than the innocently muffed "Jekyll and Hyde" reference, but it is true that Wiebe and Mitchell are two very different men fixated on the same goal.
I brought my player-hating better-half along to this well-hyped face-off, hoping to transform her perception of video gaming -- still fearing that this world and its characters would continue to appear alien, and boring. But, much to our surprise, Gordon has effortlessly recorded an inspiring story of fruition; at least, that's how the final product, shot with HD Cam, smoothly plays out over a breezy 80 minutes (a sign of a promising filmmaking career to come). That Donkey Kong is the primary plot device is almost trivial. The game and its surroundings add color, sure, but they do little to alter what is ultimately a universal tale of humanity, one that's told endlessly and affectionately to charmed audiences.
"The King of Kong" releases nationwide August 17, 2007. A feature remake (based on the documentary) is also in the works. [See also: SXSW Review: The King of Kong]