Before I showed the 2007’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters at Movie Klub, I informed the audience that the film was a documentary, and that as unreal as the movie’s subjects might seem, they are in fact real. Yet after the movie was over, I had multiple people ask me if the film was fictional, a mockumentary in the style of This Is Spinal Tap. Like a lot of great documentaries, this is a movie which turns on the camera and captures the truth, finding it to be far stranger than any possible fiction.
This is the story of two men who are quite good at the classic video game Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell first became a star at the game in the early 1980s, and held the world record for some time. Then Steve Wiebe, an engineer from the state of Washington, lost his job and had a lot of time to devote to his own attempt at the record. Wiebe turns out to be very, very good.
So how in the world is that enough for a movie? Well, for one thing, Wiebe and Mitchell are perfect opposites. Wiebe is Mr. Everyman, an average-looking, even-tempered, utterly normal family man. Mitchell, on the other hand, has allowed his success in video games and business (he also owns a restaurant and sells barbecue sauce) to send his ego rampaging out of control. Obsessed with his own greatness and determined to keep it at all costs, at one point Mitchell compares the controversy over his world record to “the abortion issue.”
And there is controversy. Oh, is there ever controversy. Mitchell has been the most famous person in his community for so long that the entire system bends at his will; not only is he buddy-buddy with the top referees, but he is himself one of the referees who would judge if a challenger to his own record were ever legitimate. He has other players who, unable to beat his records themselves, instead settle for spying on Wiebe and trying to undermine him. It’s hard to imagine a 30-year-old video game engendering this kind of Machiavellian maneuvering, but you watch it unfold right in front of you.
Director Seth Gordon stages the film expertly … maybe a little too expertly. After all, if the film is thought to be a mockumentary because it’s so slick-looking, that’s a flaw in its own way. For his part, Billy Mitchell complained in this 2008 interview with the AV Club that at least one scene in the movie was staged, or selectively edited, to make him look bad (a charge that Gordon denies). On the whole, though, it’s just impossible to complain about the filmmaking here; a montage where Wiebe plays the drums and demonstrates how Donkey Kong is played correctly is especially impressive.
That’s not to say everything in the movie is completely true. As the movie’s Wikipedia page details, the movie omits that a third person posted a would-be record score five years before the events in the film (that score was in dispute), and that Wiebe himself had established a would-be record two years before the events in the film (that record was reclassified). When you delve into a world as complicated and addicted to detail as video games, these kinds of omissions are inevitable; you can’t let it get bogged down in too many disputes, because in the end the movie is not only about who held the record when and why.
So what is it about? In a word, fame. No one is getting paid for this*; they would say they’re doing it for the love of the game and the thrill of competition. But the way that Billy Mitchell’s hangers-on look up to him and do his bidding tells the real truth: people want to be in the presence of greatness. If they can’t have their own greatness, they’ll be happy to convince themselves that they’re sharing his, even if he’s too egotistic to even pretend to share it. Unlike the current reality TV boom, this is not even about being on camera, it’s just about the peasants wanting the king to come down and play.**
Given that, it’s impressive by itself that Wiebe even gets a chance. If there were money involved, he might not get one: witness the way that college football shuts out all but the richest schools from its championship via the BCS. As it is, he struggles to demonstrate that he is a legitimate and honest gamer, which is not easy given that he’s associated with Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt. If you think Billy Mitchell is a crazed egotist, then Mr. Awesome is … I’m not even sure what word I should use. Someone in the movie says “psychopath,” which doesn’t involve as much hyperbole as you might think.
The King of Kong opens with some of the various personalities we’ll hear from over the course of the movie, professing their love for video games. The remainder of the film shows us that love is not enough. If you want to be a champion, you have to be a little bit unusual, a little bit driven, maybe even a little bit ruthless. And even if you make it to the top, you’ll attract the attention of people who are even weirder. Can a normal sort of person make it through a world like that? Watch the movie and find out. You won’t regret it.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Of course, that could have changed after this movie became a hit. It might be interesting to make a sequel to see how this film changed everyone’s lives; I imagine that the only thing which could make Mr. Awesome an even bigger jerk is a lot of money.
**I wish I could take credit for this line, but Brian Michael Bendis wrote it in his excellent comic series Alias.