Wizard Mode (Hot Docs Review)
Wizard Mode, from directors Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry, is named after a term used in the pinball community. Some pinball machines have something akin to a video game’s hidden or locked bonus level achieved after executing a series of difficult tasks. Salazar attempts to make a metaphoric connection between this achievement and the achievements of Robert Gagno, a top-10 globally ranked competitive pinball player and a twentysomething young man suffering from autism, who has been trying to live his life as normally as possible.
At a high level, the metaphor works. Just as Gagno strives to win pinball tournaments, climb the world rankings, and achieve “wizard mode” in those machines that have it, he realizes over the course of the film he has to put the same kind of focus on gaining his independence. He has goals—a job, a driver’s license, living on his own, and eventually romance—but it will take a “wizard mode”-level effort to achieve this.
Presented in the film are some components one would expect about the life of an autistic pinball wizard, like old home movies flashing back to Gagno’s youth while haunting voiceovers from his parents offer memories of learning about their son’s condition. There’s also footage of some tournaments Gagno competes in (with his father playing the role of chaperone, driver, and coach), plus a who’s who of globally ranked pinball players, about each of whom Robert can point out player strengths. But with the exception of that narrated home footage, none of these parts are the least bit compelling in their presentation. Even the moments at the tournaments—regardless of how Gagno performs at them—fail to generate any sense of excitement or intensity.
Those tournament scenes also expose two fatal flaws in the film. The first is that it’s incredibly one-sided. Perspectives are offered from Gagno and his parents, but the pinball community is not tapped to speak to the type of person or player Gagno is. The second is more of a technical issue: Salazar doesn’t know how to make pinball very interesting. There is a lot of visual action in the game of pinball, from the speed of the silver sphere to how much of a nudge will earn the player a tilt. All of that visual action, combined with the glorious sound of an arcade running at full speed, should grab the viewer’s attention, but that never happens.
Despite some strengths, Wizard Mode’s inability to ever find a rhythm is too much for the film to bear. Gagno seems like a good person, and pinball sure looks fun, but in this film neither of them are sold very well.