Christopher Guest in reverse: A documentary about dreams at the fringe of celebrity, played with Shakesperian seriousness. Guest’s subjects are ordinary people desperately reaching for minor glories, portraits of dreams whose time has passed. Here, the small world of arcade gaming becomes a microcosm of America. Billy Mitchell is the Don Vito Corleone of this Pac-Man obsessed mafia. His seven digit score on Donkey Kong, the triple lindy of the arcade, has made him the Alpha Male of the arcade. Mitchell dresses the part: The party is smooth in the back, no poofy business in the front. During the video game boom of the eighties, he was on television and in magazines, a sort ambassador of dork. A successful hot sauce merchant in real life, over the decades (armed with an ex-stripper wife with comic book boobs), he’s cultivated the cult that’s grown up around him.
The Cult of Mitchell is given legitimacy by Twin Galaxies, the brainchild of Walter Day, a low-rent poet-kook from Iowa who became the unofficial-but-universally-acknowledged sanctioning body of arcade scores: Ring Magazine for the Atari set. Day himself becomes a central figure of Kong: He was a Triple A level player with major league dreams but no major league game: “I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, "Hi, I see that you're good at Centipede." He’s the kind of guy who would feel no shame, even if William Shatner called him out at a Star Trek convention. Day recast himself as an impresario of sorts. He prides himself on his “integrity,” (he and his “staff” watch hours of taped Missile Command games for “irregularities”), but in order for his grass-roots organization to have relevance, arcade games needs a rock star, so he and several other arcade Betas groupie around Mitchell’s Mick Jagger.
Enter Steve Weibe, a soft, shlubby former jock who, literally, couldn’t win the big game and broke down crying on the mound. The guy can’t buy a break: The day he and his wife closed on their house, he was laid off from Boeing. He pulls himself together enough to become a middle school science teacher, though he’s more socially awkward than most of his students. He discovers his gift for Kong, taking an analytical approach (mapping barrel and fireball patterns on the screen with a grease pen, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind) to the game.
Finally, he’s found something he might actually be able to win at—but at a price. One of the most harrowing scenes in American film this year is a video of Weibe taping an epic game of Kong, the camera poised on the screen, from off-screen the voice of his young son begging his dad to come wipe his butt: “Please Dad, stop playing Donkey Kong!” Steve, and Mario, forge on.
The rest of the film explores the dynamics of American success. We see familiar characters: Steve’s heroically supportive wife, the weaker satellite of Mitchell who tries to drum up a crowd for Steve at The Fun Spot to see a “kill screen,” passively-aggressively trying to sabotage the threat to his master’s score. Mitchell’s influence over Twin Galaxies puts the entire system to a test; we root for them to cast aside the technicalities of scoring and settle this mano-a-mano, like Gary Cooper and Ian McDonald in High Noon. In the end, The King of Kong asks us what’s the essence of the American spirit? It’s put to us by a man who calls himself Mr. Awesome, an antagonist of Billy Mitchell who discovered Steve Weibe: “Everything would've fell right into place, but he forgot about one thing: About me convincing Steve Wiebe not to be a chump, talking him out of chumpatizing himself.” George Washington couldn’t have put it any better to the troops at Valley Forge.