Film Reviews

The King of Kong Seth Gordon

Rating - 8/10

In an information accelerated and nostalgia mad world, trained by the whores at VH1, it is natural to expect a film like The King of Kong, subtitled A Fistful of Quarters, to be a condescending wallow at the expense of a subculture of poor saps who still fixate over high scores on first generation arcade consoles.  Like the musicians of the current 8-bit movement, however, the filmmakers and participants here take the apparatus quite seriously (without being humorless) and find something personally meaningful beyond the colorful retro trappings.

No target is easier for snark than a geek culture, as the easily accessible stream of mockery and vitriol directed towards various sets of costumed nerds on the internet demonstrates.  Director Seth Gordon takes no such approach to his subjects.  Though he delves deeply into a small, incestuous (not to mention suspicious and defensive) world, the impression is not a "get a load of these freaks" type of gawking exercise.  What comes through most strongly is the passion for the sport, regardless of obscurity.  There is a supporting cast of people who have dedicated and sacrificed much of their lives to organize, legitimize and sustain competitive classic arcade gaming.  In the narrow informative documentary sense, much is revealed about the history and workings of the circuit.

In the broader, compelling film sense, The King of Kong is a much more intriguing and involving character story than it has any right to be.  The juxtaposition of two competitors for the all-time world record Donkey Kong score is sometimes archetypical and mythic, but always fascinatingly human.  Some controversy has arisen over the film's depiction of these characters, but that is unsurprising given how much all of the characters seem to have invested in them.  It is the age old misunderstanding that documentaries are supposed to strive for an impossible objectivity, when they are as much of a creative storytelling medium as fictional narratives.

As a sympathetic hero, we have Steve Wiebe.  A good hearted family man with OCD tendencies and a deep need to prove himself, he uses mastery of Donkey Kong to get him through a hard time in his life between jobs.  Via videotape, he earns the longstanding world record, for him a sweet vindication that accompanies his return to fulfilling employment.  After his achievement is suspiciously rescinded over seemingly trumped up questions, he spends the rest of the film proving himself in a live setting, earning the trust and admiration of the community.

As a nefarious villian, we have Billy Mitchell, child game prodigy turned adult game asshole.  In the early 80s, Mitchell set multiple records on the popular consoles of the time, and has come to be practically worshipped in the gaming circle alternately as a rock star or messiah.  The degree of admiration (and, in a few cases, irrational hatred) felt for Mitchell explains some negative response to his less than sympathetic depiction here, and as the story is told in broad strokes, it is certain that the full depth of his character is not revealed here.  His cockiness and actions, however, certainly make it easy for Gordon to cast doubt upon his integrity and intentions.

The impression is that the fawning reverence Mitchell has experienced in the community from a young age have sunk into his character.  He seems to distance himself with unspoken disdain from the world he helped to create, preferring phone updates from cronies to actual participation in events.  The distance and false mystique he cultivates stand in as much contrast to Wiebe's eagerness to prove himself before his less than embracing peers as his sub-Nick Cave peacock presentation does to Wiebe's unassuming, humble demeanor and appearance.

The King of Kong may ultimately be a small story, rather than a complex, epic American tragedy such as Hoop Dreams.  The conflict at its center, however, hits a raw nerve of real character drama that is compelling.  One reason great sports documentaries resonate more deeply than even the best fictional sports sagas (the unsentimental, fact based Friday Night Lights being a recent exception) is that the documentaries show all the personal gravitas and complexity in these competitions and the lives around them rather than leaning on stock types, cliches, and big showdowns.  When Billy Mitchell never lowers himself to personally compete with Steve Wiebe, the film loses a pat ending and gains a life beyond the film.  As it stands, Wiebe's victories, actual and symbolic, register as triumphs, while Mitchell's come off as petty chicanery.