All documentary makers pray for a fertile subject. I once lived with a wannabe filmmaker who could barely walk down a street without becoming positively mercurial when faced with potential subject matters for his next nonfiction masterpiece. (“Has anyone ever made a film about drains?” he would typically ask, and I would respond with something weary and noncomittal.)
First-time director Seth Gordon could surely not believe his luck when stumbling upon the world of competitive video gaming. Priceless moment follows priceless moment in King of Kong, his 2007 documentary on the race to hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong.
Like many nail-biting docs, it shares DNA with sports movies. Life – and, no doubt, a talented editor – generously imitates art, following the carefully-structured blueprint of a Rocky or a Mighty Ducks (Eye Of The Tiger makes an appropriate appearance on the soundtrack), to devastating effect. Somehow, Gordon manages to render heroes and villains so gleefully black-and-white they might be dismissed as unrealistic in a fictional setting.
In the protagonist corner: Steven Weibe. He’s the underdog, an outsider, an impudent challenger to a long-established throne. Helpfully for the narrative, he’s also a person of genuine integrity – a family man whose friends speak of highly, yet dogged by near-autistic obsessions (music, sports, video gaming), frequently down-on-his-luck, never quite achieving his potential, never quite being the best at anything, and, when we join him, recently laid off from his job. In other words: the prototypical embodiment of ‘the little guy’.
And then there’s Billy Mitchell. Riddled with Brent-isms, smug, preening and quietly manipulative, the ‘Player of the Century’ is effectively the anti-Weibe, or as Gordon described him in an interview, “the personification of evil”. His mere physical appearance provokes laughter and alarm. Sporting a meticulously trimmed beard and a fearsome mullet, he is the stock conception of a serial killer, the kind a tabloid would charge as guilty before proven.
The battle lines are perfectly drawn. In just 79 minutes, Mitchell vs Weibe becomes a Liston vs Clay for the Pacman generation and we find ourselves screaming at the screen like our life’s savings are invested in the fight.
King of Kong‘s charming execution and dorkish subject matter made cult status preordained from its Slamdance premiere onwards. But it is more than simplistic geek fodder – it’s a supremely well-executed piece of dramatic work, more thrilling and emotionally powerful than most scriptwritten dramas.
We can but imagine what else Gordon might gone on to offer, had he not turned his back on documentaries in favour of studio comedy meh-fests like Horrible Bosses. And with that, he tragically denied the world the seminal documentary on drains it so desperately yearns.