Director: Seth Gordon
Steve Wiebe is a fairly unremarkable guy; he’s a middle school Science teacher and is married with two children. What sets him apart from others is that he’s one of the world’s best players at the classic arcade game ‘Donkey Kong’. This man may not sound like the subject of one of 2008’s most gripping films, but The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is exactly that, a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking that begins as a gentle portrait of a simple quest and ends up as a riveting fight between two forces, the all-empowered villain and our everyman hero.
The villain of the piece is Billy Mitchell, the high score holder on ‘Donkey Kong’, and one of the world’s greatest arcade game players. Wiebe opts to beat Mitchell’s high score on the most open platform he can. Thus, he enters himself into Funspot, the world’s largest arcade game tournament. Director Seth Gordon makes sure we know the challenge from the start; Donkey Kong is the most difficult game one can play, and to beat the high score would take someone special. On this basis, we are rooting for Wiebe all the way through. Just when success seems near, however, Mitchell throws a suspect spanner in the works. From this point, The King of Kong goes from a tale of ambition to a meditation on the nature of competition and status. It ends up going far deeper than any viewer would have thought possible, thus making it accessible to even the most video-game-averse.
The King of Kong works so well because it takes a simple idea and a very niche concept (arcade game competitions) and treats them with the utmost of respect. There are all kinds of obsessives and fanboys on display here, but the film never mocks them or assumes that it’s better than they are. Gordon makes sure never to make judgements about any of the people involved, and the good-bad dichotomy between Wiebe and Mitchell emerges naturally. Mitchell is a conceited asshole obsessed with winning, while Wiebe just wants to catch a break. It’s hard to remember that these are not stock characters; these are real people! The King of Kong works both as an tight thriller (it delves into the politics and organisation of the contests and record-keeping) and as an examination of themes of obsession, status and the compulsion to win. After watching this astounding film, no-one will be dismissive of the simple video game again.