By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 20, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Searching for Bobby Fischer

type
  • Movie

I guess chess can be a fascinating spectactor sport, but it’s not one I’ve ever thought of as being especially athletic. Yet the chess matches in Searching for Bobby Fischer (PG) have a thrilling physicality. The hero, 7-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), first reveals his genius by facing down the funky ”speed chess” players who sit all day long in New York’s Washington Square Park. One of them, a strapping hipster named Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), keeps up a rapid-fire patter during his game. As he and Josh play, alternating moves every few seconds and capping each move with a triumphant smack of the time clock, their kinetic ecstasy seems as palpable as that of a basketball player in mid-dunk.

Based on a true story, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a wonderful movie, a delicate and touching drama that takes us deep inside the eccentric competitive mystique of grandmaster chess. When Josh sits hunched over a game, his big dark eyes get even bigger and darker, and his mouth flattens out into a gentle, inquisitive smirk. He’s seeing into the board (and into his opponent). In all other ways, though, Josh remains an ordinary little boy. His parents, particularly his sportswriter father (Joe Mantegna), are in awe of his gift, and also a little frightened by it. His talent must, in a sense, have sprung from them, yet in another sense he has already transcended all the knowledge they’ll ever have. The beauty of Searching for Bobby Fischer is that it uses Josh’s whiz-kid nature as a gentle metaphor for the wonder and anxiety all parents feel in the face of their children’s blooming identities.

The fun of the movie is that it’s an egghead Karate Kid. Josh is given lessons by an owl-eyed master, Bruce Pandolfini, played by Ben Kingsley in a performance of saturnine intensity. He agrees to take Josh on only because he thinks the boy may be another Bobby Fischer — that is, another player who combines mathematical virtuosity and creative fire in a way that renders chess not merely a science or a game but an alchemic fusion of the two. The spirit of Fischer (seen here in documentary clips) hovers over the movie. He’s the player everyone dreams of being, yet his mystique is based, in part, on the fact that he disappeared — literally, after winning the world title from Boris Spassky in 1972, and emotionally, into the abyss of his own mind. Can Josh hone his mastery and remain a human being?

As the movie proceeds, Josh learns to blend the chess styles of the refined Bruce and the supercharged Vinnie. The highbrow-versus-street paradox is borrowed from pop fables like Flashdance, but it has genuine resonance here, as if these two modes of perception were the poles between which sanity were balanced. By the end of Searching for Bobby Fischer, intelligence and soul seem like different aspects of the same intrinsic grace. A

Searching for Bobby Fischer

type
  • Movie
mpaa
  • PG
director
  • Steven Zaillian

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