King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
2007Director: Seth Gordon
Cast: Walter Day, Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe
eth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a movie about two classic arcade enthusiasts vying for the world record in Donkey Kong. The filmmakers are not seeking to justify or validate a life devoted to button-mashing, nor do they attempt to deride or ridicule its subjects (though, admittedly, such a film would have been easy to make). The film merely tells a story that is as old as America itself about a down-and-out hero who fights the establishment for a little slice of recognition and retribution. Perhaps it’s telling that Gordon had to look to a bizarre niche world like arcade gaming to find this arc being lived anywhere outside of storybooks and multiplexes. Whether you’re looking in the realm of politics or business, the little guy rarely wins anything these days.
That is, of course, what makes Kong so compelling. The film is essentially On the Waterfront played out in reality, with Steve Wiebe encapsulating the role of Terry Malloy, a man whose life’s been a string of disappointments and dreams deferred. His antagonist, despite the fact that his delusions of grandeur are indeed only delusions, embodies an oppressive and exclusive establishment worth fighting against, no matter how big or, in this case, miniscule the stakes. I mean, if an honest man can’t even win a Donkey Kong tournament, how can we expect an honest man to win something as significant as, say, the U.S. Presidency?
This nemesis is none other than the legendary Billy Mitchell (what, never heard of him?) a man who has cultivated a far-reaching influence over gaming officials and spectators as a result of a world record-breaking Donkey Kong performance in 1982. In the following years, Mitchell set numerous gaming records, all of which have since been broken. That is, except the Donkey Kong record, which no one had come even close to touching. The Kong feat was his livelihood, the last remnant of a fading legacy that Mitchell would go to any petty lengths, from vicious manipulation to outright cheating, to preserve.
Enter Steve Wiebe: failed musician, failed athlete, a veritable average Joe whose surface accomplishments are so mediocre, that he surely must have been invented by the filmmakers. But no, Wiebe is flesh and bone, the epitome of the tragic everyman. One day while stumbling about the internet, Wiebe sees Billy Mitchell’s record score on the Twin Galaxies gaming website. He thinks to himself, “Hey I could beat that.” And what do you know, after a few months of practice, Wiebe absolutely demolishes Mitchell’s record.
What then ensues is one man’s battle to maintain dignity and resolve in the face of another man’s childish machinations. Mitchell will try to dismiss, discredit, and finally disqualify Wiebe’s scores, while advocating a strict gamer’s code of ethics that Mitchell himself actively breaks at every turn. Meanwhile, Wiebe continues to defend himself, honestly and respectfully, to a gaming council led by the well-meaning, but all too diplomatic Walter Day. These tribulations are soundtracked by Wiebe’s own piano compositions, the scraps of an abandoned musical career. Simplistic and melodic, the tunes are transformed into lovely paeans to the common man when coupled with images of Wiebe’s futility and despair.
Director Gordon wisely eschews long shots of the Donkey Kong gameplay itself, instead focusing on the stunned reactions of the crowds and the vacant yet profoundly immersed stares of the zoned-in gamers. We also catch poignant glimpses into Wiebe’s private life where he’s seen with his supportive wife, two adorable children, and loyal brother. So if he’s already living a reasonably good life, what’s he doing at an arcade 3000 miles from home, getting all teary-eyed over a bunch of catty schemers like Mitchell and his weasel-like protégé, Brian Kuh?
The fact is, Steve Wiebe simply cannot abide the injustice. His athletic and musical pipe dreams fizzled out due to his own fears and insecurities, but the Kong record was lost because some arrogant sociopath named Billy Mitchell can’t let go of the past. Yes, Wiebe values his loving family and job as a science teacher, knowing that life will go on even if he adds one more failure to a lifelong docket of missed opportunities. But hell if he’s going down without a fight. In the big scheme of things, sure, a Donkey Kong record is pretty insignificant. But that doesn’t make Steve Wiebe’s persistence any less admirable.
At least once a week it seems (at least during college football season) a sportscaster will remark after witnessing an incredible play that “If I saw it in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” And it’s often true that real life is simultaneously simpler and more outrageous than anything screenwriters dare to dream up. For documentarians, however, the story is only as unbelievable as their subjects, and with The King of Kong Seth Gordon discovered a gold-mine of incredulous behavior and stark moral oppositions within the saga of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. An unlikely source of drama, but then that’s life for you, I guess.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is currently playing in limited release.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-10-18