Director: Seth Gordon (The Problem with Percival)
Producers: Ed Cunningham, Luis Lopez, J. Clay Tweel, Beau Bauman, Ross Tuttle
Starring: Walter Day, Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, Todd Rogers, Steve Sanders, Doris Self
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 79 min.
There are a couple of key elements to a good film: a likable protagonist (or at least someone we can relate with), a villain (perhaps with a posse), a challenge and a compelling story. It’s difficult enough to get this to work when you’re making the story up but to get the package deal with real people? In my limited viewing of documentaries, it’s not something I’ve come across often but here’s one that fits the bill.
The film is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It’s the story of two men, Steve Wiebe (the challenger) and Billy Mitchell (the title holder), and their continuing saga in the fight for Donkey Kong supremacy. Sounds pretty silly, I know, but it makes for some seriously compelling story telling complete with challenges, disappointments, head to head battles and even a little bit of magic.
Producer Ed Cunningham picked up on the story before Wiebe made his first trek to classic arcade game mecca Funspot. He saw the possibility of a potential film within the subject matter but the dynamic between Wiebe and Mitchell wasn’t immediately apparent and didn’t develop until after interview with Mitchell in which he left big black holes of information wherever Wiebe was concerned. With a potential story on their hands, director Seth Gordon was hired and three years, 350 hours of raw footage and much editing, have resulted in one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the past few years not to mention one of the best film’s I’ve seen all year.
This may start off as a film about a fight for a high score but it quickly switches gears and becomes a film about two men: one who is coolly trying to retain his title and another who is desperate to win it. They each have their own reasons for wanting to be number one but from the opening minutes we get the sense that one is more deserving than the other and as the film progresses, it’s clear that Mitchell is a cocky SOB. He may well have the skills to retain his title but he’s not pictured as a very likable man. Wiebe, on the other hand, is shown as a nice, quiet guy who always seems to end up with the short end of the stick. Multi talented but never being the best at anything, Donkey Kong gives him hope and as pathetic as it sounds, it’s something we can all relate to. Who wouldn’t want to be numero uno at something?
Wiebe is the class act in this story, always playing with integrity and speaking from the heart but I can’t help but wonder how much of this love I feel for Wiebe is natural and how much of it was created by the film maker. The fact that we follow Wiebe’s story much more closely suggests that the filmmaker had more intimate access to Wiebe’s family but at the same time, the crew also managed to capture some fairly intimate moments in Mitchell’s life. I want to think that Wiebe is the really nice, approachable guy that comes across in the film but I’m concerned that perhaps Mitchell’s side of the story has been purposefully edited to heighten Mitchell’s un-likability factor. It is worth noting that, according to the film’s Q&A, Mitchell has yet to see the film, even after offers of private screenings, which suggests to me that he knows he doesn’t come off smelling of roses. On the same token, it’s also interesting to note that not all of the footage of Wiebe and his family is positive and in a few instances, including his taped attempt at the high score, we see Wiebe’s bad side.
And these are only the two main characters in a film full of individuals who would likely make interesting subjects in their own right. There’s Mitchell’s errand boy and big deal wannabe Brian Kuh, Twin Galaxies referee Walter Day and the apparent arch nemesis Roy Shildt.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters works not just because of the subject matter (who doesn’t want to know more about the competitive world of classic video games?) but mostly due to the individuals involved. I couldn’t help but cheer for Steve Wiebe whenever he came close to his next accomplishment and I couldn’t help sharing some fairly ugly words with the screen when Mitchell appeared (particularly near the end of the film).
I’m looking forward to checking this out on DVD when it finally hits the streets in late January. I’m hoping there’s loads of bonus material to keep me entertained for a few more hours. If not, I can always re-watch the film and then start preparing to challenge the Tetris record holder.