If you want to find out what it means to be a hero, you could do worse than seeing two current documentaries: In the Shadow of the Moon and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Shadow consists of documentary footage of the space race, intercut with new interviews of most of the men who have been to the moon and back. Kong follows another race, and one of the strangest competitions of our time – the battle to be the world Donkey Kong video game champion. At first glance, these films may seem to have little in common – but they both reflect different dimensions of the same theme: that of American exceptionalism.
In the Shadow of the Moon brings parts of the politics and adventure of space travel to the attention of an audience for whom putting a human being on another planet is a historical fact rather than a mythical possibility. The astronauts are wholly charming and exude an integrity that we may associate with the post-war era, in which service to the community was perhaps considered a higher ideal than in our own cynical age.
The King of Kong relates the heroic narrative of Steve Wiebe, a Seattle native whose life story more resembles that of Homer Simpson than Neil Armstrong. A failure at high school sports, grunge music, and even being laid off on the day he and his wife signed their mortgage papers, Wiebe is an endearing figure – the kind of guy who seems far too nice to be the recipient of so much trouble. The one thing he knows he is good at is Donkey Kong, which he plays obsessively in his garage, hoping to beat the 25-year-old record held by Billy Mitchell, whom the film portrays (perhaps unfairly) as a hot sauce-hawking Darth Vader with a mullet. Steve’s wife supports him in challenging the record, but his nemesis refuses to grant him the dignity of even turning up to participate in the competition, preferring to submit a taped entry. The tension mounts, and we are seduced into feeling the desperation perhaps as much as when the world watched Apollo 11 land on another world.
Both films are stories of people struggling against the odds; and both the astronauts and Steve Wiebe may remind us of ourselves. Regrettably, the moon documentary buries the lead. A film about human beings who can genuinely be said to be unique spends too much time looking at the technical aspects of space travel, and far too little on how the travelers were changed by their journeys. Toward the end of the movie, one of the astronauts speaks of his epiphany that all of creation comes from the same source and that we are all one. It is ironic that such a pacifist (and biblical) revelation resulted from a neo-military endeavor rooted in Cold War paranoia and suspicion.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the Steve Wiebes of this world go about their own, smaller adventures – the adventure of building a family, of living honestly, of seeing ourselves as beautiful imperfections. In the Shadow of the Moon focuses on something extraordinary, but manages to make it seem less than the sum of its parts. The King of Kong, however, takes something apparently absurd and suggests that the decision to try to do one thing right might actually be a key to becoming a better human being.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com