This film was originally reviewed at TIFF 2014.
Edward Zwick is a great filmmaker, but he rarely gives you subtlety. Some have criticized his medium-to-large-budget action films – titles that include Glory, Defiance and Blood Diamond – as too simplistic, which would have stained those efforts more if they were not so compelling and exciting. So, to hear that the director was behind a film about the introspective game of chess and its most famous player, the complex and controversial Bobby Fischer, was nerve-wracking. Would the film skimp on the nuances of the New York chess sensation? Could the Last Samurai director figure out a way to depict the game in an inventive way onscreen?
Well, although Zwick has still not managed to find a way to visually communicate the game of wits and cunning, he has still made a biopic and thriller that should entertain those who do not even know how to play chess. Pawn Sacrifice is a stunningly acted and quite accurate drama about a real-life person, improved by screenwriter Stephen Knight’s decision to focus on one central event in Fischer’s life, rather than do an all-encompassing, Gandhi-like biopic.
Tobey Maguire stars as the demanding, arrogant, preening chess player when he was in his twenties. (Suspiciously, Maguire looks just as youthful here as he did when playing Peter Parker 12 summers ago.) The film opens on Fischer in a state of disarray, panting and pacing around a hotel room, ripping open telephones to check if there are microphones inside. He is going slightly mad, and the hazy lighting and superimpositions is a callback to the opening hotel scene from Apocalypse Now. Like Willard from that film, Fischer has no interest in leaving his room. He is paranoid from what is happening outside; however, instead of the heart of Vietnam’s darkness tempting to swallow him up, it is Cold War paranoia that is getting to the American chess grandmaster.
Out of fear and apparent madness, Fischer does not show up for a world title match against his Russian foe, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, in an effortlessly cool portrayal that features almost no dialogue.) News outlets referred to their championship series of matches as “World War 3 on a chessboard,” pitting the USA and the USSR against each other. Zwick spends too much time relying on news reports to explain the global significance of the game, the onslaught of journalistic characters seeming to eclipse those in the principal cast. (It could have been easier for Knight to write a couple lines of dialogue instead of relying prominently on news bulletins for context.)
From this perplexing moment in Fischer’s legacy, we backtrack to his life as a young boy growing up surrounded by Jewish intellectuals near Washington Square. (Young actors Aiden Lovekamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, who play Fischer as a boy and teenager, are very convincing prodigies.) We see his infatuation with chess and his passion to beat much more seasoned players. When Fischer loses a close match to the head of a New York chess club as a boy, he recoils into the corner and lets out a silent cry. He would continue being a sore loser through his life, blaming his failures on everything and everyone but himself.
Shortly after he becomes the most sought after opponent in the New York chess scene, a pulsating montage of late 50s/early 60s news events pushes us into 1962, when he was the youngest chess grandmaster in American history. Increasingly prolific, as well as inflammatory, Fischer takes aim at the Russian greats, boasting that he has what it takes to be the world’s premiere player. That is easier said than done, as Spassky has an arsenal of intelligence and fortitude that makes him a viciously difficult man to beat. With the aid of two companions, lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Father William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Fischer plans a trip to Iceland to play against the Soviets.
Those supporting players mentioned above are excellent, even if they get little to do but try their best to keep Fischer out of trouble and out of his own head. However, Pawn Sacrifice lives and dies by its depiction of Fischer. Thankfully, Knight’s screenplay does not shy away from the man’s glorious contradictions – he had a mind both incredible and dangerous; he loved gloating to the public but was a nuisance and nut in private. The screenwriter makes one sympathetic and understanding to his social difficulty and paranoia, letting us into his dizzy headspace. Meanwhile, Pawn Sacrifice also hints at his future repugnance as a vagrant and anti-Semite, without making these aspects too distracting.
Acting with a ferocity that evokes his turn from Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, Maguire gives a career-best performance as the brilliant, troubled Fischer. Some could grouse that his grandiose yelling and prickly personality is off-putting, but they would not realize these characteristics were a part of who Fischer was. Maguire flits his eyes, furrows his face and slowly descends from a poise sitting position at a chessboard into hunched impatience.
Unfortunately, as stupid mistakes flummoxed Fischer, a few rock and roll-based anachronisms bothered this critic. In a montage leading up to 1962, we see archive footage of The Beatles landing at JFK, an event that did not occur until 1964. In a scene shortly after, a character compares Fischer with Jimi Hendrix, although that guitarist would not achieve fame for a few more years. Meanwhile, Zwick fails to find a way to depict the game of chess cinematically; as a result, since it is hard to follow the order of moves on the board that would give clarity to the characters’ thought processes, we are left with the performances.
Fortunately, Maguire and Schreiber can say much with very little, although people not well acquainted with the game could get restless during these sequences. In the matches, Zwick enhances the sound effects so that the small details happening around Fischer seem like incessant noise to the film’s audience, as well. (In one match, Fischer is so distracted by the creaks a camera emits and coughs coming from an audience, that he demands the game continue in an adjacent ping-pong room.) His yelling would seem obnoxious and his behavior irresponsible, but by closing us into his disoriented mind through visual and aural elements, Zwick makes his paranoia haunt our heads, as well. We understand Fischer’s madness and misery, as well as the mania he ignited.
Aided by a prickly, career-best turn from Tobey Maguire, Pawn Sacrifice is a mostly fascinating look at chess iconoclast Bobby Fischer.