The King of Kong (2007)

Dir. Seth Gordon

“Remember the first rule of politics,” Jim Broadbent says as Boss Tweed in Gangs of New York. “The ballots don’t make the results. The counters make the result.” The counters in Gangs of New York have a simple goal: ensure that Democrats win every election in 1860s New York. It doesn’t matter who the man is as long as he’s a Democrat, or, heck, as long as he’s their bastard and not someone else’s bastard. Surely it’s not democratic in the literal sense of the word, but there is an enticing level of acceptance that a man can aspire to if he joins the Tammany family. At the beginning of the film, Tweed seeks an alliance with psychotic nativist Bill Cutting; by the end, Tweed has thrown in his lot with the Irish and their swelling immigrant population. What matters is not character or belief or value, but belonging. Such is the Twin Galaxies family in The King of Kong, a film which delves deeply into a group every bit as obnoxious and unlikable as Tammany Hall: gamers.

In 1982, Life took a photograph of the world’s best video game players in Ottumwa, Iowa (which had a population of about 27,000 at the time), and the people in the photo are all white males between 14 and 30. The Wild West metaphor of the arcade video scene is fairly popular, analog and lonely as the imagery of the OK Corral. In the present, Walter Day suggests the presumed clash of Donkey Kong titans Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe in Hollywood, Florida, is like a Dodge City for the video game set. There’s also a kind of Wild West looseness with which people are included in the photo. It is Steve Sanders who has his picture taken with the Donkey Kong machine, and he admits that his qualifications were probably a little overstated. After the shoot, he racks up a score of a couple hundred thousand points on the machine; Billy Mitchell, who was at the shoot presumably for his Centipede record, comes back with a score of 847,000, recognized as the high score at the game, and thus was Sanders humbled and Mitchell exalted. The gamers speak about him in awestruck tones. Day says that Mitchell is tailor-made to be the face of video game players. Sanders speaks of the beating he got at Mitchell’s hands as a kind of life-changing event, although he doesn’t have quite the majesty in his recollection that Mitchell provides to the showdown. Brian Kuh, at the outset of the film the second-highest scorer on Donkey Kong, maintains this kind of energy throughout the movie.

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Seth Gordon doesn’t make it seem like the entire purpose of Twin Galaxies is to live and die sycophantically at the whim of a guy with a truly inexplicable coiffure. In talking to Twin Galaxies’ primary referee Robert Mruczek—in other words, the guy who watches the tapes people send in of them breaking world records on various video games—you get the sense that there’s a genuine excitement in being able to watch people make history right in front of your eyes. Billy Mitchell is the prophet of the Twin Galaxies set, but his ministry is a distant sort. He’s spending most of his time making hot sauce in Hollywood, running a restaurant, enjoying the attention that his disciples lavish upon him, and seems not to spend any time playing video games at all. He chooses when he comes and when he goes, and people like Day and Kuh are only too happy to supply him with all the hero worship he can slurp up. I don’t believe in alpha and beta males, because I’m older than fourteen and I’ve met women before. But The King of Kong makes you wonder a little if those concepts are real if people like Brian Kuh actively view themselves as betas prostrated before alphas like Billy Mitchell.

Mitchell recounts an analogy that someone used to describe his vast lead on the Donkey Kong leaderboard early in the film. The leading American ace in World War I had twenty-some aerial victories, and the leading French ace in World War I had a few more than him. But the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, had eighty kills. He sees himself as the Red Baron, obviously, which is an interesting place to put oneself, seeing as he was defeated and killed several months before the Armistice. For what it’s worth, it’s not even that good a metaphor anyway. (Apparently these arcade guys never got into MS-DOS games, because all you’d have to do is play Red Baron for five minutes to understand that this is egregious René Fonck erasure.) The better metaphor is significantly less complimentary to Mitchell, because it means that he’s someone you’ve never heard of before. If Billy Mitchell is anyone, he’s Arne Andersson or Gunnar Hägg, one of the guys who came close to crossing the four-minute mile mark in the 1940s, held the record for years, and then got blown away by Roger Bannister in the 1950s. That Roger Bannister’s 3:59.4 time would not get him close to world-class status in the present day is even better evidence that Mitchell’s sub-million 1982 score was always made to be broken.

Enter Steve Wiebe, an unemployed dude who has never been in Life, who puts up a score of over a million on Donkey Kong in his garage in Washington State, submits the tape to Twin Galaxies, and almost immediately gets pushback for a host of reasons. There’s some suspicion about the board, given that it’s a privately owned one and not located at a regulated arcade like New Hampshire’s Funspot. There’s even more suspicion about the board because it came from Roy Shildt, a slightly mysterious character who refers to himself as “Mr. Awesome” and has a deep antipathy for Billy Mitchell, which means all the Twin Galaxies folks hate Roy Shildt. Most importantly, no one knows Steve Wiebe. On one hand, this doubt for the new guy on the block is not totally unreasonable. If a runner didn’t compete at any world events and then skunked the competition in the Olympics, they’d check her for steroids; if a baseball player who was off Keith Law’s radar came to the majors and hit .400, they’d want to know if he’d corked his bats. The suspicion makes sense; the actual reasons that the Twin Galaxies folks have for being suspicious are not a credit to them. They all but break into Wiebe’s garage and take apart his Donkey Kong machine when he’s not home. Although they’ve been taking videotapes for world records before, there’s an exception for Wiebe. They want to see him do it in person at a place like Funspot. What ought to be a celebration of someone breaking a record that stood for more than two decades turns, pretty clearly, into a bunkered down defense of the sanctity of Billy Mitchell.

The King of Kong starts to devolve as the one-sided Mitchell-Wiebe rivalry takes center stage. The most interesting thing about this story is not who will walk away with the Donkey Kong high score, which I’m not sure Gordon necessarily knows himself. Part of the problem he has is that he doesn’t know the ending to this story as he’s recording it, which is not his fault; he’s a fly on the wall for basically everything after the set-up. All the same it means that he spends a lot of time waiting around for Billy Mitchell to appear at the Guinness World Records summit in Hollywood, which Mitchell does for about ten seconds, although he never deigns to sit down at a machine. It means that he watches Steve Wiebe and family sit around in Hollywood, trying to break Mitchell’s new (and obviously fraudulent) videotaped world record that the Twin Galaxies crew is all too happy to accept as genuine because it requires no reshuffling of their fragile world order. In the end, Walter Day makes a point of accepting Steve Wiebe (whose surname he has learned to pronounce) into the family and telling him that he and the rest of the Twin Galaxies referees trust him implicitly. I think Day must believe this is tremendously magnanimous. I think it’s got all of the grandeur of “GOOBLE GOBBLE ONE OF US.” The right answer is probably somewhere in between, given how well Wiebe takes what is obviously a well-meaning gesture on Day’s part, but it’s a bum note to end on. Gordon can do no more than provide a card at the end of the movie which states that Wiebe is, at the time of release, the Donkey Kong world champion thanks to a new high score.

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