Documentarian Seth Gordon demonstrates classic gamesmanship in this profile of Donkey Kong and the men who play it

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

on August 17, 2007 by John P. McCarthy
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Access to compelling subject matter doesn't always guarantee a riveting documentary. Seth Gordon hit the jackpot with classic arcade games and the people obsessed with playing them, yet what makes The King of Kong so entertaining is how he shapes the material. It entails deception—or at least misdirection—so if you prefer your documentarians to be totally up-front and honest about what they're doing, beware.

When a nonfiction filmmaker takes sides but doesn't let on—when he pretends to be neutral while leading the audience to his own conclusion, as Gordon does here—the results can be exciting, even if you feel a little duped. For the first 20 minutes, this shrewdly constructed film is to classic arcade video games— Pac-Man , Space Invaders and the titular Donkey Kong —as Wordplay is to crossword puzzles. Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, the organization that monitors all things related to this once-dominant form of electronic amusement, is profiled. We survey its history, going back to a 1982 Life magazine photo shoot with the top players, hear from experts and meet peripheral figures. Gordon introduces us to this nerd-filled milieu, evoking much humor in the process, while setting the stage for something bigger.

The King of Kong becomes a gripping, you-are-there chronicle of a sports challenge in which a malevolent insider is pitted against a good-guy interloper. Who should hold the official world record for the highest score on Donkey Kong : Billy Mitchell, a Florida hot sauce entrepreneur and widely acknowledged “Gamer of the Century,” or Steve Wiebe, a hapless science teacher from Washington State? Without revealing the fascinating particulars, Mitchell thinks he's God's gift but won't step up to the plate. He's a genuine villain worthy of hisses and boos, a fact Gordon brilliantly exploits by letting the Darth Vader of the arcade world hang himself. Turns out, Gordon has been rooting for the underdog all along.

Two lessons pop out: Life may be stranger than fiction, but it takes talent and guile to turn it into an extraordinary movie. Second (listen up, Mitchell), be wary of documentarians bearing what looks like a vanity project. Distributor: Picturehouse
Cast: Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe
Director: Seth Gordon
Producer: Ed Cunningham
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13 for a brief sexual reference
Running time: 79 min.
Release date: August 17, 2007 NY/LA/Sea/Aus
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