It's Been Real
The King of Kong
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them. 

"When you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price."-Billy Mitchell

The more invested a person becomes in a certain outcome, the more they are willing to put on the line to ensure that their ideal result comes to pass. When you put a person in a position in which something that they hold dear may be taken away from them, you can usually get a pretty clear view of who that person really is and the lines they will draw in the sand when it really comes down to it. On the surface, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is about a subculture few of us have much of a vested interest in. But because all of the players in the film are so singularly obsessed with this subculture, it soon becomes a microcosm of the way our society functions and the film transforms from a story about competitive video gaming into a struggle between good and evil and a serious study of what it takes to make it in America.

Directed by Seth Gordon, the film begins by outlining the rise of competitive video gaming and the emergence of its most brightly shining star: Billy Mitchell. A record holder in over five classic video games, Mitchell is the picture of self-centered confidence, with his slicked back hair that seems almost, but not quite committed to being a mullet and his motivational-speaker style of conversation, Mitchell carries himself with the alpha male aura of one of the world's least-likely idols. We see him successfully running his own restaurant chain and selling hot sauce, we see him engaging with other gamers who act like his disciples, and we even see him buying a Q*Bert game for an elderly woman who wants to compete for the high score. Everything seems fine and dandy in the life of Billy Mitchell, assured God of competitive gaming.

That is until Steve Wiebe comes along. Having recently been laid off, Wiebe gets it in his head that he will beat Mitchell's Donkey Kong record, which has been unbeaten since 1982 when he first attained it. After months of practice with an almost obsessive compulsive dedication, the modest, unassuming Wiebe manages to greatly overtake Mitchell's score. In a brilliant bit of character building, the film develops Wiebe as Mitchell's polar opposite: Mitchell is a shark, always looking for an angle to victory, always coming out on top regardless of the costs; Wiebe, on the other hand is shown as a man who has spent his entire life almost making it big, from the time he made it to the State Finals with his baseball team and choked, to the time his band never took off, and finally to the moment when he was laid off from his job at Boeing after only wishing to be a lifer.


Once the stage is set and our sympathies firmly with Wiebe, things start to get interesting. His score is challenged by Twin Galaxies, the official video game score keepers, and the men sent out to check his machine are clear acolytes of Mitchell. When he travels to Funspot in New Hampshire, where the national tournament is held every year, he publicly beats Mitchell's record, only to have a disciple of Mitchell's pull out a tape of Billy beating that newly established score (a tape that is accepted, in spite of the fact that it seems far less sound than Wiebe's own tape). What began as an obsessive quest to make something of himself for once quickly becomes a fight to beat out perceived corruption and to use dignity to overcome the shady dealings going on before him.

The King of Kong
builds so well and so naturally that it is easy to find yourself completely wrapped up in the rivalry of two men who have never met and are only dueling over Donkey Kong scores, because it quickly becomes clear that these men stand for much more and tell us important things about how our society operates. Billy Mitchell is a ruthless, win-at-all-costs type with a sly smile and a manipulative charm, and its clear from both interviews with him and those with his friends and family that he has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to get ahead. Steve Wiebe is a nice, mild-mannered guy who only wants things to be handled fairly, and yeah, maybe wants to get one win under his belt after a lifetime of near-misses.

The struggle between the two is almost certainly drummed up by Gordon in the editing. Many people from the gaming world have come out on both sides and claimed that the film contains inaccuracies or clever cuts to make some of its points. And there is little question as to whose side the filmmakers are on. Steve Wiebe is shown to be near saint-like; Billy Mitchell is implied by the end to be corrupt and even cowardly. Neither of these portraits is likely entirely accurate, but both are symbolically important. The film may gloss over some of the finer points, but it does so on its way to creating the unexpectedly thrilling story of an underdog's attempt to buck a system created partially around the superstar he hopes to dethrone (and when I say unexpectedly thrilling, I mean it. I was prepared for the film to be compelling and was still surprised by how emotionally involved I became. I confess to getting goose bumps a few times).

I would never argue that The King of Kong is the most unbiased or accurate documentary we have looked at in this space, but it is certainly one of the strongest narratively. From a soundtrack rife with sports-movie classics (including, of course, "Eye of the Tiger") to the perfect way the main players backstories are constructed (as I imagine they must have been) to place them as diametric opposites, the film is a great story, masterfully told. The King of Kong made me want to cheer for an event I had never thought much about before, but more than that it kept me thinking for a long time about the ways in which our society is set up to keep the winners on top and the losers striving for goals they may be kept from meeting. And all this for a game that, at heart, is about a guy who never quite seems to get the girl.

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Coming up on It's Been Real:

5/13: Helvetica

5/27: The Times of Harvey Milk

6/10: Bowling for Columbine

6/24: Hellboy: In the Service of the Demon
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