Even with a colorful mad-genius figure like Bobby Fischer as its subject, movies about chess present a huge challenge for filmmakers. After all, how do you make a cerebral battle between two people sitting virtually motionless at a table for hours dramatic? The achievement of Edward Zwick’s new Fischer biopic, Pawn Sacrifice, is that it does just that. It manages to turn thinking into action.
Fischer was, of course, no ordinary chess player. He was a petulant child prodigy who came across like a Brooklyn-bred Mozart. He was a grandmaster at 15, a world champion at 29, and somewhere in between became a symbol of American intellectual superiority during the height of the Cold War. Until Fischer came along, the world of chess had been dominated by the Russians. They seemed to regard the sport as proof that the hammer and sickle was mightier than the stars and stripes – that their way of life was better than ours. That sort of thinking seems preposterous today. But at the time, it helped turn Fischer into a strange sort of celebrity, culminating in a 1972 media-circus showdown in Reykjavik, Iceland, between the eccentric Fischer and the Soviet Union’s stoic champion, Boris Spassky.
The bizarre Spassky match is the centerpiece of Zwick’s film, the powder keg at the end of the movie’s fuse. And it’s gripping. But to get there, Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight first have to do a lot of psychological table setting, which is both too broad and too abridged, especially his complicated relationship with his mother. But while the first half of the film is a bit too by-the-numbers, the second half is good enough to make it worth sticking it out.
Tobey Maguire plays Fischer as soon as he enters his twenties (Aiden Lovekamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick play him at younger ages). And there’s something about the casting that feels just right. Maguire has always been a show-rather-than-tell actor. He’s an interior kind of movie star that’s less about grand gestures than making you wonder what troubled thoughts he’s thinking. Which is perfect, of course, for any chess player, but especially a man like Fischer, who became more and more idiosyncratic and psychologically unhinged as the years went on, launching into Anti-Semitic rants and Byzantine conspiracy theories. Was this a result of his upbringing? His ego? A symptom of his mental illness? We never really get an answer. The best explanation the film offers is that the fracturing of Fischer’s beautiful mind might actually have been caused by the obsessiveness of chess itself. That theory is given even more weight when we’re introduced to Spassky (well-played by Liev Schreiber), who’s nearly as paranoid as his American rival.
Fischer lived too deeply in his own head leading up to the Reykjavik match to have gotten there on his own. And the film surrounds him with a good-cop/bad-cop team of coaches/enablers played by Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg. But as good as they both are, Pawn Sacrifice is really a one-man show. Any film about Bobby Fischer would almost have to be. B