Thursday, August 16, 2007

Games people play

Iraq, health care, and the environment make for meaningful, insightful documentaries, but sometimes you need a hit of something else. I'm not necessarily the target audience for Seth Gordon's The King of Kong, which Picturehouse opens tomorrow, Aug. 17. I've never made it past the first rung of Donkey Kong, its ostensible subject, and probably haven't picked up a joystick since it and Pac-Man were in vogue 25 years ago. My sister was more the gamer, hooking up the TV to Colecovision and Intellivision (what might those be worth on Ebay?), and I took my brother-in-law, who has carried the flame into the Xbox era, to the screening. But I have no hesitation calling this delightful film one of the best of the year.

Gordon, who spoke after the screening, said he got lucky, as he and his production crew ponged between locations on a budget summed up by the film's subtitle, A Fistful of Quarters. Their subject was Redmond, WA, resident Steve Wiebe, the Avis of old-wave gamers. Wiebe's whole life, his wife and friends explain, is a matter of trying harder and never quite hitting No. 1, not in football, and not in the workforce. Though a loving husband and father, and an earnest, likable person, he has disappointment etched in his manner. But during a spell of unemployment Wiebe, like Robert Redford in The Natural, found his calling, his own personal Wonderboy of wiring and circuitry: Donkey Kong. Playing on a machine he installed in his garage, he mastered its nuances, which are carefully explained. And then he went for the gold, setting a record score that in 2005 made him (briefly) more famous than favorite son Bill Gates and his wife Nicole, to her supportive embarrassment, "The First Lady of Donkey Kong."

It takes about two and a half hours of concentrated play to reach high-score status. As animated points and vectors overlaid images from the game, I realized I'd probably still never get off the ground floor. So far, so geeky. But more a two-minute TV segment than a movie. This is where it all gets interesting. Wiebe's accomplishment smoked out Billy Mitchell, who as a teen set the long-standing Donkey Kong record, all the way back in 1982. Mitchell, who hawks his family's barbecue sauce, cultivates an aloof, slightly satanic manner; he is the Hertz of vintage gamers and the player credited for putting it on the competitive map. A lot of what we learn about Mitchell, who has a Mephisto mustache to complement his period hairstyle, is through inference, in whispers that echo throughout the halls of Twin Galaxies, the organization that tallies gaming records. We enter its peculiar corridors of power, where the masters of QBert and Galaga go for affirmation, and where Wiebe makes his case for greatness at a tournament held at New Hampshire's hallowed video emporium, Funspot. But Mitchell, on whose fame Twin Galaxies was built, trumps him, not in person but via a suspicious videotape of his own new record-shattering score.

Wiebe, whose name no one at Twin Galaxies can properly pronounce, inherits the mantle of underdog, and a documentary that had been about middle-aged gaming deepens into a fascinating chronicle of sportsmanship, richly eccentric but never less than human as we meet the members of the subculture who will determine Wiebe's fate. The journey, accompanied by deserved audience cheering as Wiebe ascends to a new plane once the Guinness Book of World Records takes an interest, ends with a restoration of values and hard-won acceptance into the community that had me as misty-eyed as Wiebe...but I'm not spoiling anything. Hang on for another shattering twist, which occurred when Gordon thought he could head into the editing room.

On a scale of one to 10, The King of Kong scores one million. While Mitchell is set up--indeed, sets himself up--as the black hat to Wiebe's innocent, his wariness is understandable as his long-established record comes under fire. This open-hearted account, with its fallible, funny cast of quintessentially American oddballs, understands that everyone has a reason, and gives them their due. A feature film is planned, with Steve Carell attached to star, yet the real deal is more than worth a fistful of quarters to experience. As a bonus, we got to see Wiebe in action, at a Guinness event held at the Dave & Buster's adjacent to the Times Square theater. A man, his machine, and Mario, on their way to reaching the elusive final screen, for only the fourth time in public. And I was there.

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