Directed, photographed, and edited by Seth Gordon. Produced by Ed Cunningham. Music by Craig Richey.
Review by Keith Phipps,The A.V. Club, August 17, 2007:
If there’s a superstar in the world of classic video gaming, it’s Billy Mitchell, who first caught the public eye thanks to a 1982 profile on video-game champs in Life magazine. In subsequent years, Mitchell went on to run a successful Florida-based restaurant and hot-sauce business, all while defending his status as the all-time high scoring champ of several games, including Donkey Kong. With his brushed-back hair and halfhearted mullet, Mitchell is an unlikely idol, but he has an alpha-male aura, a Successories vocabulary, and the records to back up his boasts. Most of the classic gaming enthusiasts interviewed in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters speak of him in hushed tones.
A documentary about the champ and his challenger,King of Kong begins by establishing Mitchell’s near-invincibility, then segues from a boastful monologue about his achievements to an unlikely usurper—modest, introverted science teacher Steve Wiebe, who used a recent stretch of unemployment and a lifetime of obsessive tendencies to sharpen his Donkey Kong skills. When Wiebe sends in a videotape of a record-breaking Donkey Kong run, Mitchell’s time at the top appears to be over.
At this point, Seth Gordon’s feature directorial debut mostly stops being about video-game obsession and turns into a film about what it takes to make it in America. Long the public face of classic gaming—though hardly a household name—Mitchell is perhaps too friendly with Walter Day, president of Twin Galaxies, an organization formed in the early ‘80s to promote gaming and record high scores. When Wiebe attempts to claim the championship, he encounters roadblock after roadblock, and learns that even in this seemingly frivolous pursuit, there’s the entrenched power structure, and then there’s everyone else.
Without neglecting the details of a little-seen subculture, Gordon harnesses his film into the unexpectedly thrilling story of an underdog attempting to buck a system structured at least partly around hushed cell-phone conversations and back-room decisions. The film keeps up a dramatic pace…but it never loses sight of the personal stories here, from the seething aggression barely concealed in the way Mitchell says “son of a gun” to the way Wiebe’s wife can barely contain her tears when she talks about his following a dream she can’t understand, one deadly barrel at a time.
Review by Robert Wilonsky,The Village Voice, August 7, 2007:
Some folks refuse to believe that Seth Gordon‘s film about two men vying for the title of World’s Greatest Donkey Kong Player could be a true story. It’s too perfect: the arrogant mullet pitted against the sad dad in a contest adjudicated by self-appointed refs who look like they woke up in a car. No way could anyone swagger like Billy Mitchell, who talks about himself in the third person while wearing the gaming crown on a head of hair that screams, “Party in the back…!” No way Steve Wiebe really told his crying kid to “waitaminute, waitaminute” while attempting to ascend Mount Dorkus. But, yeah, it’s all true—every magical, exhilarating, infuriating, dumbfounding, jaw-dropping second of Gordon’s miniature masterpiece. Ostensibly about Mitchell, who began his reign as Donkey Kong world champ in 1982, King of Kong is as much about the perils of hubris and the price of heartbreak; like the trailer says, it’s about a loser who wants to be a winner and a winner “who refuses to lose” and comes off looking like an ass. Mitchell’s the longtime champ, and Wiebe’s the longtime chump—a guy who’s failed at everything, save for his marriage and his Donkey Kong mastery, which Mitchell and his cronies fail to recognize—despite all the evidence—when Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record. How Mitchell screws Wiebe, and to what level he’s willing to stoop—that’s at the heart of The King of Kong, which would play like dark comedy were there not such honest-to-God cruelty at its core.
Museum of the Moving Image is grateful for the generous support of numerous corporations, foundations, and individuals. The Museum is housed in a building owned by the City of New York and receives significant support from the following public agencies: the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; New York City Economic Development Corporation; New York State Council on the Arts; Institute of Museum and Library Services; National Endowment for the Humanities; National Endowment for the Arts; Natural Heritage Trust (administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).