It’s hard to believe, but at one time chess was a national obsession and that was all due to one man: Bobby Fischer. A genius, enigma, egotist and sensitive recluse all rolled into one, Fischer’s dynamic and unparalleled performance with chess pieces was matched by his notably eccentric personality when out in the real world. His tragic story — from a beloved American icon to an embarrassing, blowhard bigot — is already well documented, but director Liz Garbus breathes new life into it with “Bobby Fischer Against The World,” the most compelling chess documentary you’re ever likely to see.
Yes, we know the idea of a film about chess seems about as exciting as watching paint dry but full credit to Garbus who makes every moment of the ninety minute runtime count. To help those of use who were perhaps in shortpants or not even born when Fischer became a media phenomenon, Garbus takes us all the way back to his childhood to track his rise. Raised by an activist, single mother whose dabbling in communism led the FBI to build an extensive file on her, Fischer was largely left to his own devices. Without much of a father figure in his life, and with his mother working two jobs, Fischer turned to chess and never looked back. As a young man, his interest grew to obsession and in 1957, just shy of the age of fifteen, he became the youngest U.S. chess champion ever. And from there, his life would never be the same again.
With newfound celebrity upon him, Fischer is quickly whisked on a national tour where he participates in press-worthy stunts like playing multiple games at once in each city against a variety of amateur players (something “The Simpsons” parodied quite well). Fischer continued to rise through the ranks over the next decade and in 1972 he squared off against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky for the world title. It’s in this section of “Bobby Fischer Against The World” that the film truly shines, with Garbus and film editors Michael Levine and Karen Schmeer doing some fantastic work. Cross cutting between Fischer biographers, chess experts and finely selected archival footage, we get a real sense of how massive this game was, both politically and culturally (especially with the Soviets and Americans in the midst of the Cold War). In one of the best uses of archival footage in the film, we see a news broadcast teasing stories about Watergate and the Vietnam War, only to kick things off with the latest update from the Fischer/Spassky match, a highly anticipated contest that very nearly didn’t happen.
By this time, Fischer’s eccentricities were becoming as well known as his chess-playing abilities. Only after making numerous demands and asking for the purse to be doubled did Fischer make it to Iceland where the lengthy contest with Spassky was to be held. And once there, he made further requests throughout the best-of-twenty-four match contest (yes, chess folks are serious about their championships). But again, it was the game that ruled the day and Garbus beautifully transmits how exciting these matches were; even if you don’t know your rook from your pawn, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. Again, with the great use of footage from the time as well as talking head commentary, we get a clear picture of how just how far-reaching interest was. ABC Sports actually broadcast the contest live, people stayed home from work and bets were made on which move each player would make next. And more broadly, chess became cool. But above all this extraneous noise, Fischer’s playing was simply a work of art. With strategies, moves and an attitude that Spassky clearly wasn’t prepared for, Fischer put on one of the finest displays of chess prowess ever recorded and again, it’s Garbus’ able direction and smart craftmanship that makes the thrill palpable even for those not up on the complexities of the game.
The World Championship marks the peak of Fischer’s fame and career, and consequently that of the film as well. As Fischer slips into secrecy and remains elusive for years, the task of documenting his whereabouts and behaviour becomes more difficult. There are some parallels drawn to past chess masters who also were victims of mental illness — a vague conclusion drawn by the filmmakers, though it doesn’t get much more specific than that — but much of the final act of the film is speculative and pumped up by the later, outrageously bigoted statements and actions that tainted Fischer’s legacy. There is a brief flirtation with blaming his anti-Semitic views on the abandonment of his parents (Fischer was a Jew) that is never fully explored, and Garbus doesn’t quite find a context or structure with which to build the last part of the film. This is likely partly due to the fact that no one could have expected Fischer to become the man he did, but an opportunity to better explain the man’s mental breakdown is lost. And looking at the bigger picture, Fischer’s decline also seems to mirror the disappearance of popular interest in the sport, something that remains completely and curiously unaddressed.
But what we’re left with is the sense of a man whose life was unmoored far before the signs of it were made public and a portrait of a brilliant mind whose true potential we’ll never quite know. Liz Garbus does an admirable job in trying to capture Fischer in all his complexity and while we will never completely understand the chess mastermind who remained a mystery even to those closest to him, “Bobby Fischer Against The World” is a film that admires and pays tribute to a true artist, a literal game changer and a defiant, unique spirit. [B]
“Bobby Fischer Against The World” premieres on HBO tonight at 9 PM.