Of the four films I am seeing at the Wellington film festival, two are documentaries. And those two documentaries are all about competition and the desire to win.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* was a brilliant movie about the use of performance enhancing drugs in competitive sport and in day to day life. It went into the culture of competition and the desire to be the best that typifies American (and to a similar extent, Western) life.
These themes were evident in The King of Kong, a documentary following the attempt to beat the world record score on the 80s arcade game Donkey Kong. On the one hand, there was the challenger striving to prove himself, and on the other, the defender determined to retain his title.
Unlike Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, The King of Kong was a fairly biased view, pitting the laidback family man Steve Weibe, a recently redundant man with a lifetime of disappointment behind him, against the self-important ultra-patriotic incumbent champion Billy Mitchell. The audience is in no doubt who we are to root for, with the portrayal of Mitchell as scheming, secretive and determined to retain his crown at all cost, pushing everyone firmly into underdog Weibe’s camp. Weibe gets more screen time, his family are involved more, his friends are consulted; Mitchell gets to utter a few self aggrandising lines, his wife’s pneumatic breasts get a few minutes to heave, and Mitchell’s workmates and co-gaming enthusiasts are all the character references he gets on screen.
Real insight comes not from the main “players”, but actually from Weibe’s family. Weibe’s wife is a complete trooper, supporting her husband through thick and thin; and his young daughter comes up with the most profound statement of the whole movie, one that isn’t really addressed by anyone over the age of ten.
It is hard not to like Weibe and to be behind his shot at the title, and even knowing of the blatant manipulation of the documentary does not stop one from finding Mitchell’s tactics a bit too devious, and the man himself a bit too slimy. However, the applause that broke out from the audience when it looked like Weibe had defeated his foe was, in my opinion, a sad reflection on the manipulability of the audience itself.
The Fisherman pointed out though how easily the audience found laughing at those who have dedicated their sporting lives to these arcade entertainments. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* and The King of Kong both presented extreme cases of people who were passionate about their pastimes and would do anything to maintain the dominance of themselves and their friends. However, laughing at “geeks” always seems to come easier than laughing at “jocks”, the physical and mental prowess required to succeed at computer games deemed less of an achievement than being able to run really fast or having big muscles.
But, for those incredibly passionate about something, the competitiveness and attitude of winning at all costs and the need to be right is universal, no matter what the sport or discipline. It’s not a validation of self these people want, but validation from others.
Weibe proves to be an incredible game player, but as his brother concedes, it’s the need to have that success recognised by others that pushes him to keep coming back to try and beat Mitchell; and I am sure the same could be said of Mitchell and his attempts to stay on top. It’s just a shame that the documentary makers really didn’t seem to want to chase up on Mitchell’s side of the story, contenting themselves with showing their everyman hero and his claim at the world Donkey Kong title.
Verdict: The struggles of both these men makes fascinating viewing, even through the lens of the “David v Goliath challenge” the documentary makers present. Amusing, emotional, brutal and very human, The King of Kong is very good. 2 lives out of 3.