“King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is a documentary about American squalor, failed dreams and “Donkey Kong” — the video game in which a plumber tries to save a princess from an ape. It is director Seth Gordon’s first feature film, and it is one of the best documentaries of 2007.
The film tells the story of Steve Wiebe, a middle-aged married man who wants to be the “Donkey Kong” world champion. Unfortunately for Wiebe, that title is already claimed by the arrogant gamer-icon Billy Mitchell, and much of the film follows Wiebe as he makes attempts at Mitchell’s records, going from arcade to arcade to prove that he is the best “Donkey Kong” player in the world. Wiebe beats Mitchell’s records on multiple occasions, but his scores are continually denied by Twin Galaxies, the video-game record verifiers who have a vested interest in maintaining Mitchell’s place as champion. As the paunchy, unassertive Wiebe becomes increasingly determined to win the recognition he deserves, “King Of Kong” transforms from a movie about video games into a movie about a man’s attempts to take from the world the glory he deserves, no matter how pitifully trivial that glory is. It is in the blurring of the trivial and meaningful that “Kong” succeeds, and it is this blurring that moves it from a great documentary to a great film.
At the beginning of “Kong,” viewers are presented with this William S. Burrough’s quote:
“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games.”
Video game-playing is thus immediately cast as a metaphor for human struggle, while human struggle is cast as something perpetual and pointless, a means to nothing but more struggle. Throughout the film that follows, Gordon captures all the pride and emotion that Wiebe and Mitchell invest in “Donkey Kong,” while still never losing sight of the puzzling inconsequentiality of their competition. Wiebe himself is clearly aware of this triviality, glancing at the camera every now and then as though to apologize for his peculiar habit, for this pointless pastime in which he has invested so much of his hope and pride. Eventually, both Wiebe and Mitchell find it hard to tell where the game ends and their lives begin. Nothing seems to be on the line, but then both men are brought to the verge of tears over this children’s game. The paradox is distinctly human.
Gordon is a promising new director. He turns Wiebe into an incredibly relatable subject, managing to make the audience empathize with his struggle to beat Mitchell even as he ignores his family to play “Donkey Kong.” Gordon also displays an eye for the sadder subtleties of lower-middle class existence, and his camera places Wiebe and Mitchell in a universe of rotting arcades, Subway sandwiches and the fading glory of their teenage years (the soundtrack consists almost completely of cheesy music from the 80s). The American dream weighs heavily on both competitors and, watching “Kong,” it becomes difficult to decide who deserves more pity: Wiebe, victim to his own ridiculously high expectations of life, or Mitchell, who is so thoroughly delusional that he believes that he has achieved greatness when he reaches one million points in “Donkey Kong.” Surrounded by a small, insulated group of worshipers, Mitchell feels it necessary to repeatedly remind the camera that, “I am not God,” just in case the audience has forgotten. In the end you just end up pitying both, and then pitying yourself for being so much like them.
In the end of the documentary, Wiebe wins out over Mitchell, achieving the highest known score in “Donkey Kong” and finally having it recognized by Twin Galaxies. According to Wikipedia, however, Mitchell won back the record after the film’s release, thus perpetuating the endless struggle for nothing on which “Kong” is based. Whoever wins in the end is wholly inconsequential to the quality of “Kong”: A great documentary, it forces us as viewers to cast aside our conceptions of gamers as weak, unemployed losers and see them rather as weak, unemployed losers whose lives contain all the human pathos of great drama.