The King of Kong
Over the last few years documentaries have taken onboard a lot of the visual flash of dramatic films ' you only have to look at the graphics in Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden to see that.
But the secret to a gripping doc is a lot more straightforward. Strong characters make all the difference.
On the one hand we have Billy Mitchell, dubbed the 'gamer of the century' for his perfect score on Pac Man some years back. He also set the record on Donkey Kong back in 1982: 874,000 points.
Mitchell is a restaurateur and entrepreneur, he favours patriotic ties, shiny suits and sports the kind of mullet that wouldn't look out of place on an 80s rocker. He's the kind of guy who'll make light of achievements, but in the manner of someone accustomed to being the biggest fish in his pond. 'The most seasoned person in the hot sauce chicken wing industry? Yeah, for sure: Me,' he says.
If Mitchell is a bit of a peacock, Steve Wiebe is an introvert; a nice, decent guy, married with two kids, but by his own estimation one of the under-achievers. He looks a bit like Al Gore, but Al Gore if he'd been born into a lower middle-class suburban family and grown up to teach high-school science.
Billy's dad says his son is 'a winner'. Steve's mom admits she's often wondered if he had a touch of ADD.
These two characters are so perfectly juxtaposed the doc already feels like a real movie (no surprise, director Seth Gordon is now working on turning it into a screenplay). Will Arnett could play Mitchell, and Will Ferrell would have to be Wiebe.
Then there's Walter Day, the grey beard who runs the Twin Galaxies arcade, and who is the self-appointed referee on classic arcade video game record attempts. When the folks at Guinness decide to put these records on the record, as it were, they defer to Walter. No matter that's he the first to admit he's 'not a details person'.
The drama in Gordon's film involves Wiebe's attempt to beat Mitchell's Donkey Kong score ' and, more to the point, to get his score recognized by Twin Galaxies, a universe in which Bill Mitchell is seen as a combination Yoda / Obi-Wan Kenobi figure.
The game itself is not much in the way of eye candy ' and to rack up more than 800,000 points we're talking about two and a half hours of thumb-twiddling. But such is the panic that Steve inspires among the faithful ' a mixture of disbelief, jealousy, denial, anger and hypocrisy ' the film has the rooting interest of a Rocky movie.
There is some internet controversy about Gordon playing fast and loose with the facts ' it's hard to imagine Mitchell being very happy about it ' and in recent months the record has changed hands again, and will probably continue to do so.
No matter, the film remains a surprisingly poignant black comedy about the foibles of human nature, the way that even the most trivial pursuits can assume central importance in our lives.Tom Charity
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