The King of Kong (2007) – Directed by Seth Gordon – Starring Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Brian Kuh, and Steve Sanders.
I love documentaries on obscure subjects, and while I am not unfamiliar with Donkey Kong, and while I was aware that there was competitive gaming going on, I really knew nothing about this ongoing battle for the Donkey Kong world record. Seth Gordon’s doc on Steve Wiebe’s attempt to break Billy Mitchell’s long-standing record is an engaging examination of the good guy challenger and the egotistical champion, the former trying to break the latter’s record and the latter’s attempt to do everything he can to not man up and play the former head-to-head.
Ultimately, I don’t even care about who gets the world record because the real story here is not Wiebe’s attempt to break the record, but the challenge of an outsider to be recognized by the establishment, and the quest of a man to mark out a piece of the world that he can claim as his own.
KING OF KONG casts Wiebe as a nice guy who’s never lived up to his potential. He was laid off from his job the day he signed the mortgage for his house, and when his wife tells us that Steve seemingly had the gifts of brains, music, and athleticism, but that it’s never all quite come together, you can see the pain of a woman who loves her husband and wants to see him reach that promise because she knows it eats away at him. You can also see that she’s a bit flummoxed that Steve has decided on making his mark with Donkey Kong, but she supports him as best she can.
I wish the film would have spent a bit more time with the wife to show the cost to the family of Steve’s pursuit, but his wife, son, and daughter each get a moment where they question what Steve is doing. In the middle of what becomes Steve’s record-breaking game at home, we can hear his son yelling in the background for his dad to come help him and to stop playing Donkey Kong. It’s the kind of real anger that tells you the kid is probably more sick of his dad ignoring him in order to play the arcade game than he actually needs help doing anything, and Steve’s decision to keep playing the game shows just how far his quest has gone towards becoming an obsession.
His daughter delivers the most damning line of the film when she remarks to her dad that she didn’t realize the Guinness Book of World Records was that big of a deal, and that some people ruin their lives trying to get into the book. That she says this as the family is headed to a tournament in which her dad is trying to make it into Guinness is an incredibly small but powerful moment.
What really makes KING OF KONG work, however, is how director Seth Gordon uses Steve’s attempt as an in to this world of competitive gaming. Or really, the world of the Donkey Kong world record. There’s the acknowledged champion, Billy Mitchell, his henchmen, Brian Kuh and Steve Sanders, and the king maker, Walter Day of Twin Galaxies, the official keeper of the records.
When Steve initially breaks Billy’s record, he becomes a local celebrity to ordinary folk, but the gaming world reacts differently. Even though Steve’s score was verified by Twin Galaxies’ official judge, Billy has an investigation launched into Steve’s machine, resulting in Brian Kuh taking Steve’s machine apart while Steve isn’t home and after his wife has told Kuh to stay away until Steve returns home. Kuh finds out that the board in Steve’s machine had been sent to him by one of Billy’s biggest enemies, something Steve wasn’t aware of, and so his quest to beat the record has seen him get involved in this old feud.
Steve just wants to play the game and take the record, so he starts attending live tournaments, something that Billy espouses throughout the film, even though he never once shows up to play at any of these tournaments. Steve’s arrival sends something of a shockwave through the event, as this guy none of the regulars had ever seen before is suddenly sitting in their midst, playing Donkey Kong.
Steve’s play gets the most attention from Billy’s henchman Kuh, who comes off as the biggest lackey in the film. A reprehensible sort who seems willing to do anything to covet favor with Billy, Kuh is continually on the phone with Billy to give him updates as to Steve’s progress. In his interviews with the filmmakers, Kuh comes off as whiny and jealous of Steve’s ability, constantly seeming to plead with the fates to trip Steve up. When Steve approaches the end of Donkey Kong, Kuh goes around Funspot to tell everyone that a Donkey Kong Kill Screen is about to come up. You could argue that Kuh is doing this because it’s an historic event, but it comes off more as Kuh’s attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Wiebe in the hopes that the Kill Screen never comes.
Mitchell’s other henchman, Steve Sanders, comes off much better. When there’s a tournament in Hollywood, Florida – the town where Billy lives – Sanders attends to check out Steve’s progress and game playing. At first he repeats Kuh’s actions, calling Billy to give him updates. Unlike Kuh, however, Sanders recognizes and respects Steve’s game-playing abilities. You can see it on his face as he watches Wiebe play that he’s legitimately impressed and when he talks to Steve and his family there’s a genuine respect for a fellow gamer and, more importantly, human being. Where Billy and Kuh simply view Steve as a threat, Sanders sees him as a person.
Billy comes off as a total manipulative, controlling, self-involved dickhead throughout the film, but nowhere is his true self revealed more than when Sanders tells the camera that he thinks Wiebe is an honest guy, a good person, and a terrific gamer. Billy sits next to him as Sanders relates this opinion with a look in his eye of disbelief and betrayal at what Steve is saying.
Apparently, Billy never learned that the way to make yourself look even better is to build your opponent up before crushing them, not denigrating them.
Walter Day is the keeper of the records, and he comes off as a nice guy who’s easily pushed around by Billy. When Steve breaks Billy’s record in front of a cheering crowd, Billy’s henchman Kuh submits a taped performance of Billy breaking the million point mark. Despite the tape being of questionable quality and containing enough questionable material that the official judge openly questions their presence, Walter is convinced by Billy that the tape is authentic and gives the world record back to Billy. (The tape will later be disqualified, but the film doesn’t get into this.)
The climax of the film sees Day called “Steve Weeb” up to the front of a tournament to get a special recognition. Steve finally tells Day that his last name is “Wee-bee,” and Walter apologizes, and then officially recognizes Steve’s abilities and tells him that Twin Galaxies would be happy to accept any future taped games he wants to submit because his skills have been proven to everyone in attendance.
Well, except for Billy, who shows up at the tournament long enough to do a walk through but not play or even engage Steve. Wiebe is playing Kong when Billy walks by and greets him, but Billy doesn’t acknowledge the greeting and instead says to his wife, “There’s certain people I don’t want to spend too much time with” as he passes behind Steve. It’s a dick move, completely classless and petty, but that’s apparently who Billy is, even beyond what the film actually shows. (Director Gordon has said there’s more evidence of Billy’s manipulativeness, but he showed only what he had to show to tell the story.)
By the end of the film I didn’t really care who had the world record (it’s now owned by neither Billy nor Steve, though both have held it since the film’s release), because I was happy to see that Steve had achieved some level of his potential. Being accepted by Walter Day, Steve Sanders, and a bulk of the arcade gaming world might not seem like a triumph of greatness, but it really comes across quite powerfully, and we see (and hopefully Steve sees) that whatever financial or personal success he might achieve, he is, at his core, a decent guy and that should matter more than any record.