Hard Ass

A Donkey Kong documentary is one of the most entertaining movies of the year

On rare occasions I take my dear friend Carey Burtt to see a film with me. Mr. Burtt is a crusty, middle-aged, northeastern liberal avant-garde filmmaker who has not only seen every movie you've ever seen, he has also seen all the films that ever came to you in dreams or nightmares, and all the films that, when shown backwards, reveal how it is that we, as a species, came to possess the turtleneck.

So Burtt is not easily impressed. After virtually every film I foolishly take him to, he utters the same line: "I guess I just don't like movies anymore." Then he goes home and watches 10 more movies.

So I was a bit surprised when, in the middle of King of Kong, he grabbed my arm and whisper-shouted "This is so good!" And then he kept squealing with delight, occasionally covering his eyes because the on-screen tension was too high, and even exclaiming, "Oh, god, I hope he wins!" as the protagonist began to rack up an impossibly high score in the video game Donkey Kong.

Yes, this is a documentary about video games, with large chunks of the film involving a still camera pointed at a video game console, and it's actually riveting. Riveting in a way that makes middle-aged avant-gardists shout with girlish glee. It may well be the most successfully dramatic documentary ever made.

The film follows the efforts of Steve Wiebe, an unemployed father of two, as he tries to take the high score record in Donkey Kong from mullet-headed villain Billy Mitchell, a man who reeks of evil from his over-brushed hair through his ridiculously matching clothes down to his nerd-boy-trying-to-be-cool shiny black boots.

Or at least that's how the filmmakers have edited this thing. While Billy Mitchell is clearly creepy, I can only imagine that he's not quite as villainous as he seems, and that Steve Wiebe is not quite the paragon of downtrodden goodness and underdog virtue that he seems.

But that's the way the film works, and that's why it works so well: It exaggerates traits that are obviously there in its leads. The friends who've come to Billy Mitchell's defense since the film came out really can't explain his inherent ickiness; he's an alpha nerd with a coterie of now-grown groupie boys, and its clear he's never quite figured out how not to posture for power. Everything he says is self-aggrandizing, and even if these are only the things that made it past the film's editor, anyone who spends that much time waxing creepy in Tony Robbins tones about how generous and personally powerful he is, is gonna automatically apply for the role of antagonist.

The conflict between Mitchell and Steve Wiebe begins when Wiebe sends a videotape of his high-score game of Donkey Kong to Twin Galaxies, the official record keepers for all the brave knights of video-game land. However, after initially accepting the tape, the Twin Galaxies judges decide to reject Wiebe's record on vague suspicions that Wiebe may have cheated. On Wiebe's side, this seems unlikely, but at Twin Galaxies there is a taint in the air: It turns out that Billy Mitchell, the former record holder, is one of the referees.

But this is pretty much the story of Wiebe's life. From being denied the chance to pitch in a baseball championship game, to never succeeding as a musician, to losing his job at Boeing, Wiebe's is a story of endless potential that never becomes actual. And where Mitchell is all swagger and unselfconscious self-parody, Wiebe is the sensitive shy guy, known for weeping openly and falling into depressive funks. It's hard not to root for him.

Which is why King of Kong works so well. It's not just a good documentary (actually, in some ways it's a bad documentary, since some important details are left out of the film), it's great dramatic film. In part this has to do with some sly editing; a third contestant for the title of Donkey Kong champion is never mentioned, and it's made to appear that Wiebe was treated more unfairly than he was.

But if you can get past the fudging, the film is a perfect storm of characters, dialogue and dramatic arc. There's talk of adapting it as a scripted feature with professional actors, but I can't imagine that they could be as good as the real thing. From Mitchell's comically terrifying hair, to Twin Galaxies guru Walter Day's zen-mystical approach to videogaming, to Mitchell's wife's comically inflated breasts, to Steve Wiebe's charmingly oblivious children, the effect of reality is far more powerful than anything that could be attained by artifice, and makes for one of the best movies you'll see this year.