“Work is for people who can’t play video games”
2007. Rated PG-13. Out on DVD. Directed by Seth Gordon. With Steve Wiebe & Billy Mitchell.
One of the great qualities of a good documentary is that it can take a seemingly esoteric subject and give it universal appeal. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is ostensibly about to men trying to get the high score in Donkey Kong, a 1980s arcade game that most people are aware of but stopped playing over two decades ago. It’s really about so much more –what drives people to obsession, the cult of celebrity, the importance of family, justice and fairness, and ultimately how a man chooses to define himself.
The film introduces us to a sub-culture of people who are still obsessed with classic arcade games — from well-known games like Pac-Man to obscure games that only a select few even remember. Of all those games, however, Donkey Kong is considered to be the most difficult, and thus its high score is looked upon as the holy grail of this world. In 1982, Billy Mitchell, a legendary figure and regarded as the best classic arcade gamer of all-time, set a record that lay unmatched for two decades.
The narrative revolves around Steve Wiebe, a recently laid-off father of two from suburban Seattle who makes it his quest to break Mitchell’s record and have it recognized but runs into a lot of roadblocks along the way. First, the governing body “Twin Galaxies” run by Walter Day makes it difficult for Wiebe, and eventually he has to travel to the Mecca of classic arcade games, a place called Funspot in a small town in New Hampshire to prove his worth. While Wiebe performs brilliantly, it is clear that two separate sets of rules exist for Mitchell and everyone else.
Wiebe is a soft-spoken guy, nice to a fault. You can see how much this record means to him and his self-worth and it’s sort of tragic to see the lengths he goes to prove himself to the world. He’s a guy who, according to his way-too-supportive wife, is good at a lot of things, but was never great at any of them. He’s the protagonist of the film, and it’s clear that Gordon, the filmmaker, sympathizes with him — but there are moments where you can see the toll it is taking on his family’s life. There is a particularly heartbreaking exchange where his young daughter tells him about the Guinness Book of World Records, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.”
If Wiebe is the hero of the story, then the arrogant, brash Mitchell would be the villain — a crafty, charismatic figure who manages to stay one step ahead of the more naive Wiebe. Mitchell is portrayed as someone who on one hand is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the record, but on the other makes it seem like he is now too good for the challenge. As the poster-boy for Twin Galaxies and the hero to most of the people in the film, Mitchell is the Goliath to Wiebe’s David.
There are other memorable characters, like Brian Kuh (“There’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up!”) and my favorite, Mr. Awesome, who advises Steve to not chumpatize himself. But the story belongs to the conflict between Wiebe and Mitchell and ultimately it is what elevates it above a curiousity to a really great film.
The biggest flaw is in the editing — while it bothered me more after when reading about the film than while watching it, it was clear that Gordon was favoring Steve and was very selective with certain facts. It plays more as a stylized documentary than the real thing, where Gordon plays with the timeline and facts to fit his ideal narrative. Day has specifically pointed out numerous inaccuracies and is unhappy with how the story is portrayed. Mitchell, who is obviously a larger-than-life character is clearly cast as the villain in the film but seems way less so in real life, and the relationship between the two men is not as frosty as the film would have us believe. Apparently Gordon is in talks to make a fictionalized Hollywood remake, but the original in pretty much in that vein anyway.
While it may not be as accurate as a documentary should be, The King of Kong is still compulsively watchable and way more entertaining than a movie about Donkey Kong has any right to be. The story is still ongoing and there are updates on the DVD, but there’s a high likelihood that a few years down the road there will be a follow-up film as the record continues to get passed back-and-forth. Viewed as purely a documentary, the lack of accuracy hurts it, but viewed as a film, I highly recommend it.