A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: # 12


2007, PG-13, 84 mins.



Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Todd Rogers, Steve Sanders and Doris Self

A documentary directed by Seth Gordon.

When I was a wee and unassuming lad of 8-years-old I thought that the single hardest video game out there was Donkey Kong.  

Dang…was it hard.  

Released by Nintendo in 1981, the game was one of the very first examples of “platform” genre gameplay (meaning that you had to maneuver a character across a series of platforms and avoid all obstacles in his path).  Only the sickest of fanatical minds could have come up with this game’s tediously difficult mechanics: You – playing Mario – had to save the damsel-in-distress (Pauline) from giant a KING KONG-esque ape named Donkey Kong.  That damn ape threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at you: fireballs, high-speed barrels…you name it.  Your only defense was to either jump over them (not as easy as it sounds) or bash them with a hammer…if you had one.  

This, of course, brings me to Seth Gordon’s deviously intoxicating documentary THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS, which ostensibly follows two particular men as they attempt to achieve the highest score possible on Donkey Kong.  Now, on paper, a 90-minute documentary about…aging video game players…may seem like the most mundane and wearisome filmgoing experience.  To be frank, very rarely has there been a film that I have seen that has a premise where the relative stakes are so…decidedly low for all parties.  

Yet, the minor miracle of Gordon’s documentary is how it manages to triumphantly transcend its meager premise and become something even more engaging and fascinating.  The more one watches THE KING OF KONG the more one becomes aware that this film is really not about video games; it’s about primal obsession and the oftentimes-insatiable lure of competition.  It also creates two of the most memorable personas to occupy a documentary and it’s so enticing to see how Gordon lets these real people so easily morph into two ageless movie archetypes: the plucky, resourceful, never-say-die underdog hero and the vile, sanctimoniously smug, and arrogant villain that thinks he has the upper hand on everyone around him.  The “villain” in question is, most likely, a decent and caring family man, but much like the figures of Michael Moore’s best documentaries, this guy seriously incriminates himself with stunningly crazy platitudes about his own self worth.  At one point he looks into camera and states, “No matter what I say, it draws controversy.  It’s sort of like…the abortion issue.” 

This man is Billy Mitchell, and rarely in a film has such a man been so compelled to constantly hold himself up to inane god-like hero worship as this guy does.  Fictional films could not have written a protagonist so annoyingly cocky, pathetically egotistical, and easy to dislike.  And he looks evil…kind of like a cross between…oh…I dunno…Rasputin and the evil owner of Globo-Gym played by Ben Stiller in DODGEBALL.  He has a long, jet-black mullet to end all mullets, a thin Hans Gruber-esque beard, and a stoic looking stare that makes him look like a European terrorist…or a porn star.  One of his many claims to fame is the fact that he is a wealthy hot sauce pioneer and tycoon in his native Florida.  

Billy’s real boastful accomplishment, though, is that way, way back in 1982 he set an all-time record high score on many an arcade machine when he was just a pimple-faced, pencil thin mustached geek.  Not only did this guy get a perfect score on Pac-Man, he also set a record for high score on, you guessed it, Donkey Kong.  His score was recorded by an organization called Twin Galaxies, which is made up of uber-nerds that compile lists of all record scores in the U.S. on classic arcade machines.  Billy became such a legend (in his own mind and in their minds of video game players) that his record went uncontested for a quarter of a century.  To top it off, he was named Video Game Player of the Century in 1999 and there is rarely a moment where Mitchell does not like to plug his status throughout the film.  If someone out there in the world has not heard of him then it is his very mission in life to make sure that you will know who he is.  It’s clear from the get go that his real badge of honor is not his hot sauce empire, but his high score in an archaic video game from the early 80’s.  Some men simply hold on to the past, but this guy has a bear hug on it.

Like all great ROCKY-like tales of perseverance, guts, and integrity, THE KING OF KONG does give us an underdog hero.  He's Washingtonian Steve Wiebe, who has lived a life of constant letdowns and disappointments.  He initially had a passion for baseball, but one tournament failure early in life crushed his future hopes.  He's a smart and talented man, proficient in music, art, and sports, but he's also a classic underachiever, forever fearing to go for broke to do something with his talents for fear of potential letdown (a point his wife frequently makes in the film).   After he was laid off from Boeing Steve became a stay-at-home father and later would go to night school to become a teacher.  He does have one passionate hobby: he develops a real craving for Donkey Kong and plays it a lot in his garage.  He then reads about Mitchell’s record score on 874,300 online and then realizes that – wait a tick – he could beat it.  

What happens next is kind of astounding.  He uses his math and engineering skills to decipher little patterns in the game's sequencing and is able to formulate a system that helps him achieve incredibly high scores.  One day in his garage he attains the unthinkable – a score of 1,006,600!  He makes a tape of it (as shown in the film, it’s really painful to watch, especially when his infant son is pleading with Steve to help him go to the bathroom, but like a junky at a slot machine, Steve pleads back to him that – damn it! – not to bother him since he’s setting a record).  When Twin Galaxies head referee Walter Day gets the tape, he declares Steve the new record holder of Donkey Kong and he becomes an overnight celebrity. 

The documentary then goes down some really weird paths. 

Mitchell, being incapable of acknowledging that his once beloved record is now history, does everything in his power to dispute Wiebe’s record.  This guy has got a considerable amount of pull in the gaming world:  He is the Don Corleone of arcade geeks and seems to have an endless entourage of nerds at his disposal to do all of his dirty work.  Incredibly, Mitchell even manages to get some cronies from Twin Galaxies to all but break into Wiebe’s garage to tear his Donkey Kong machine apart to see if its computing board has been tampered with, hence, making the record illegitimate.  Mitchell, to his great delight, discovers that the Donkey Kong machine was given to Steve courtesy of a sworn lifetime enemy of his and Twin Galaxies.  As a result, Steve’s record is considered invalid and Mitchell still remains the champion.  

Steve Wiebe does not throw in the towel.  Instead, he makes it his personal mission to take back the Donkey Kong record thrown away from that SOB Mitchell.  Steve trains, so to speak, and arranges to go to several thousands of miles out of his way to a Twin Galaxies arcade to set a “live” record for Donkey Kong…and he does just that…despite having several of Mitchell’s nerdy henchmen there spying on Wiebe, texting status reports to Mitchell, and doing everything in their power to psyche Wiebe out of getting a record.  Wiebe’s new record of 985,600 points stands…for what seems like minutes…because Mitchell sends in a fuzzy VHS tape to the arcade with his new record score of 1,047,200.  Because Mitchell is a member of the Twin Galaxies family, his record is never questioned.  A teary eyed (literally) Wiebe goes back home and pitifully concedes defeat...that is until he learns that the Guinness Book of World Records wants to declare Mitchell the record Donkey Kong holder.  This is the proverbial straw that breaks Wiebe’s back and he decides to “go for it" to reclaim his honor once and for all. 

There were many moments while watching THE KING OF KONG where I incredulously shook my head and simply could not believe what I was viewing.  That, perhaps, is also a small facet of this film’s greatness:  It does what all masterful documentaries do and takes a seemingly mundane and uninteresting subject matter that viewers know very little about and makes it compelling and unreservedly immersive.  The film is great drama for the way it manages to be touching, poignant, and oftentimes sad and downright disturbing with its portrait of these two men desperately yearning to achieve video game Yoda status.  Steve and Bill’s competition slowly morphs from something that starts as a friendly battle of joysticks and into a never-ending journey on Steve’s part to reclaim his pride and a sense of justice for his initial record being unceremoniously taken from him.  

Yes, the stakes of a Donkey Kong record seems so mind-numbingly small when compared to all of the ills occurring in the world today, but THE KING OF KONG is less about achieving an immortal game guru status than it is about how unwavering obsession drives certain men.   After awhile, I found myself mocking these men less for how they spend far too much time staring a pixelized characters on screen and instead grew to marvel at the film as a morose tragic-comedy about winning, losing, jealousy, and what it means to be ultimately triumphant.  In the end, THE KING OF KONG becomes such a joyously uplifting tale of personal redemption because, let’s face it, it becomes very easy to cheer for such a likeable everyman like Steve against the almost maniacal and dastardly Billy.  Mitchell comes off so many times in this film as a sniveling, unscrupulous, and conveying teenage boy trapped in an adult man’s body.  Steve plays for a sense of redeeming his life’s failures, whereas Billy plays to set records so he can continue to proclaim himself as God’s gift to the arcade world.  You never once sense love of video gaming in Bill’s eyes: he is too blinded by the aura of constantly manipulating and one-upping his opponents and being number one to have an emotionally satisfying time with games he professes to cherish.

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS emerges as a small little triumph.  It dives us head on into the remarkably small sub-culture of competitive gaming and opens it up into a whole larger realm of the nature of fierce and prideful opposition.  It’s easy to look at the players of this odd morality play and label them as losers without anything better to preoccupy their time, but to them – as do most subjects in great documentaries – they take their vocation very, very seriously.    What is a modest hobby to some is a compulsion of limitless scope to these guys. 

Just how serious?  Well, consider Billy Mitchell’s boastful words in the film at one point: 

“In competitive gaming, when you wanna attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written in history, you have to pay the price.” 

That serious.

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