Sunday, September 16, 2007
The Cult of Billy Mitchell
"Who is Billy Mitchell?" you ask? Well, he's only the best Donkey Kong player in the world! Any hardcore gamer will tell you that! But when Steve Wiebe, a down-and-out family man from Washington State, loses his job, he sets out to change his luck by breaking Billy Mitchell's untouchable Donkey Kong world record.
That's the premise of the incredible new documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters." If you're not sure you'd enjoy a movie about a bunch of arcade-dwelling social misfits, think again. The first minute of this film hooked me. And it hooked the audience, too: reacting to a key plot point midway through the film, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause, something I've never experienced before.
Good storytelling doesn't obsess on a solitary theme. Hence, "King of Kong" becomes a tale of (take your pick): cult of personality, the cycle of failure, the quest for redemption, recapturing past glory, a man's needs vs. his family's needs, the integrity of our institutions, the return of the Messiah, and many more.
The likable outsider, Steve Wiebe, represents the moral center of the film, but his goodness comes with a price. After losing his job, rather than focusing on providing for his family, he neglects his wife and two young children to play Donkey Kong in the garage. For most of the film, he's essentially a bachelor, unwilling to step into his role as husband and father (sadly, a role he already inhabits). For him, a loving wife and two beautiful children aren't success -- earning the respect that comes with the world Donkey Kong record is.
His nemesis, Billy Mitchell isn't just the most compelling character in the film; he's one of the most compelling characters I've ever seen on screen, anywhere. The long-haired, bearded Mitchell inspires a Christ-like devotion in the gaming world. He's got it all: money, charisma, a luxurious mullet, and a silicon-enhanced babe at his side. When interviewed on screen, he eats up the camera, exuding total confidence and self-assurance, unlike his terminally-geeky disciples. And because of his personal magnetism, we witness this fan club desperate to protect their hero as the movie builds to a "High Noon" showdown.
Why do these arcade insiders worship Billy Mitchell so much? The film shows us a cocky sleazeball so unaware of his own megalomania that you'd hesitate to call an ambulance were he struck by an SUV. But among the arcade geek-eratti, he enjoys such Branch-Davidian devotion that you wonder if he's drugged their Red Bull with love potion. One Billy-devotee breathlessly equates him to a Jedi Master. A pair of Billy-boys show up unannounced at Steve Wiebe's house to intimidate his wife. Billy's own parents gloat about how their son is always one step ahead of everyone else.
No spoilers here. Believe the hype, and go see this movie. The ensemble of real-life characters are far more compelling than any others you'll see this year.