DVD Catch Up: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters(2/1/2007)


The documentary film is a genre that recently has become somewhat redundant.  Most successful documentaries tend to fall into one of two categories: political and chronicles in weirdness.  The first is the political piece, these films made popular by Michael Moore explore major issues in our time, often with a satirical twist.  The other category involves examining the life and times of weirdo who often have weird hobbies.  This category of documentary probably goes back to the great Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb.  Recently this documentary style has turned to a trend of examining bizarre under worlds that obsess over seemingly banal hobbies like Spelling (Spellbound), crossword puzzles (Wordplay), and scrabble (Word Wars). The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters, fits directly into that final sub genre, as it chronicles people and their obsession with the classic video game “Donkey Kong.”

The film documents the rivalry between champion Donkey Kong players Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.  Mitchell, has had a world record Donkey Kong score dating back to 1982, which had stood unchallenged for decades.  That is until Steve Wiebe sent a tape of himself beating that score in to Twingalaxies.com.  In a controversial move that score was denied because his machine had a motherboard that had been tampered with by a lunatic named Roy Shildt.  Determined to beat Mitchell’s record, Wiebe travels out to Florida in order to beat the score in front of a live audience thus becoming the undisputed Donkey Kong champion.

  I’ve played many a game of Donkey Kong over the course of my life, its really fun, but it boggles my mind as to why anyone in their right mind would spend so much of their time playing this archaic videogame.  My knowledge of the game was the start of what raised some of my suspicions about this documentary.  Early on the film hypes the game up as some kind of wildly challenging puzzle, requiring superhuman hand eye coordination, and this is at best an exaggeration.  The game isn’t easy, and getting hundreds of thousands of points the way these guys do is hard, but the game isn’t half as hard as they make it out to be.  I’m also not quite sure why the film consistently seemed to ignore the second and fourth levels.

In the long run what really annoyed me was its simplistic outlook on the events its documenting.  The film goes to great lengths to make Steve Wiebe into a lovable underdog and to make Billy Mitchell look like a jealous douchebag.  Director Seth Gordon makes no attempt to hide his allegiances in the film, he goes so far as to use the Karate Kid theme song “You’re the Best” by  Joe Esposito as a leitmotif for Steve Wiebe and accompany his training with the famous Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger.”  Juxtapose this feel good 80s nostalgia with the menacing Leonard Cohen song that’s used as Billy Mitchell’s theme and you’ll get a pretty good feel for how even handed this film is.  The film is also marred by a false ending coda that can only be called extremely tacky.  

Watching the film I was consistently more interested in Billy Mitchell than the appointed hero.  I wanted to know what made Mitchell tick, I wanted to know how he was feeling as the record he was so proud of was about to be taken away.  Unfortunately Seth Godon shares none of this curiosity, and instead sticks with the simplistic slob vs. snob storyline that he’s manufactured. 

This manipulation that I had suspected was confirmed shortly after my viewing of the film when I did some research and found a statement made by Twin Galaxies explaining that Wiebe actually already had the record score when the film began, and after his 2003 score was rejected the record reverted back to his own score reached in 2000 rather than Billy Mitchell’s 1982 score.  Additionally Mitchell and Wiebe had met and played together numerous times before the filming of the documentary.  I’m a firm believer that Documentaries should be taken as pieces of work unto themselves that shouldn’t have to stand up to outside research in order to be fun films unto themselves, but they should at least feel above suspicion while you’re watching it, and this didn’t live up to that test.

Don’t get me wrong, this underdog versus champion storyline can be fun if you’re willing to ignore the manipulation, and this was a fairly nice watch from beginning to end, but it doesn’t deserve the acclaim many are placing on it because of its novelty subject matter and it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been.  I’m definitely glad I waited to watch this on DVD.

**1/2 out of four

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