“Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.”
—Jillian Wiebe, on the Guinness Book of World Records
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a brilliant little movie, but it gets its heroes wrong.
Director Seth Gordon made a wise choice when he put together his movie, in that he found in Steve Wiebe a hero, and in Billy Mitchell a villain. Over the course of the film, we see the two of them battle it out for ultimate supremacy in the arena of Donkey Kong, Wiebe through sheer determination and will, and Mitchell through yes men and questionable tactics.
It’s a struggle that’s interesting in that it never sees its two players facing each other down in any tangible way. Rather, the conflict takes place only via the high score board of various Donkey Kong machines. Despite the lack of face time the two get with each others, the conflict is very real and very contentious, and it makes for gripping cinema.
And while it’s the Mitchell vs. Wiebe faceoff that dominates the story, there’s a subplot that tends to be overlooked. If Steve vs. Billy is Good vs. Evil, Steve’s relationship with his family touches on the price that good must pay to vanquish that evil. The above quote from Wiebe’s daughter Jillian, nine at the time but wise beyond her years, represents a turning point in The King of Kong: It’s the reality check.
You see it happen at the beginning—Wiebe is in his garage, video camera focused on a potential record-breaking Donkey Kong performance, when you hear his son: “Dad! Wipe my butt!” Dad, having to choose between treadmarks in his son’s undies and Donkey Kong history, chooses history. The episode is played for comic effect, but when little Derek, only five at the time, starts yelling at dad to “stop playing Donkey Kong!”, you start to feel for him.
Wiebe’s wife is patient and unflinchingly supportive of her husband, recognizing his talent and allowing him to explore it, perhaps partially out of love and partially out of wanting her man to experience some success after being unceremoniously laid off from Boeing, where his father worked his entire life. And then there’s little Jillian, who somehow seems the wisest of all of them.
The struggle between arcade history and familial connectedness is never so pointed as in the climactic four days during which Wiebe travels across the country to try to beat Mitchell for the Guinness Book of World Records. For four days, his family mills around the arcade where he strives for history, out of place in a world they could never truly understand, only to go to the beach and see the sights without him.
On one hand, it feels sad, as if Wiebe is neglecting his family for a pursuit that could easily be seen as childish and frivolous. On the other hand, you have an example of a family in which we see roles beyond those in which the father “provides”, the mother takes care of the kids, and the kids suck the life out of them. Here, we have a family that provides for dad when he is in need, who support him in what is obviously a psychologically difficult time.
The extras of the King of Kong DVD drive this point home by way of question/answer sessions. Wiebe explains at one point that he’d be a perfect guy to ask for Donkey Kong advice, but you probably shouldn’t follow his parenting example. It gets a laugh, but it’s a comment that points to a sort of self-awareness that makes the viewer comfortable in the knowledge that Wiebe has since returned his family to #1 on his list of priorities, if in fact they had ever left that position.
The DVD’s extras add new dimensions to the film. Another supporting character, Steve Sanders (a lawyer friend of Mitchell), manages to put things in perspective. When he tells it, it makes sense that the record-keeping organization, Twin Galaxies, would be skeptical of an unknown newcomer breaking a 20-year-old record, and it makes sense that the same organization would be a little more understanding toward the longtime superstar responsible for much of that organization’s current level of fame. He relays the regret that Mitchell obviously feels for some of his actions in the film. He also conveys some of Mitchell’s more positive traits, which include an apparent predilection for charity work. It’s refreshing to find a DVD that is willing to paint its characters in more subtle colors than the usual, two-dimensional virtuous, flawless character, even if that subtlety is relegated to the “special features” of the DVD.
While it’s true that The King of Kong is about the pursuit of excellence in arcade games, it could just as well be about competition in canoeing, weighlifting, or basketweaving. Ultimately, it’s really about what an underdog and those he loves has to go through in the pursuit of a championship. In that regard, the story is compelling, heartbreaking, and yes, uplifting, and worth a look from the hardcore gamer to the technophobe. The hope behind the drive is what entertains, provokes, and even inspires The King of Kong.