As Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) says in “Pawn Sacrifice,” chess is a game of unlimited options, but there’s “only one right move.” To call it merely a game diminishes something that is beyond such a description. Intellectually rigorous and emotionally taxing, it may not boast obvious gymnastics or grueling physicality, but chess demands total concentration, and strategy that involves knowing both your own moves and anticipating your opponent’s, while the consequences of a mistake are swift, ruthless, and immediate. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and indeed, chess is littered with great players who spiraled into mental decline, Fischer included. Conveying of all that cinematically, along with a game that is played in hushed tones, with more time spent thinking than actually moving pieces, is a challenge to say the least, but Ed Zwick takes it on to mostly satisfactory results.
While the movie is presented as a dramatization of the 1972 “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, Iceland between Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), that’s only half the film. Before we get there, the first section of “Pawn Sacrifice” is dedicated to tracking Fischer’s phenomenal skill and his rise as one of the best young players, not only in the world, but of all time. Even early on, Fischer displays inspired and obsessive talent, as well as recklessness that makes him unpredictable both on the board and in his real life. Raised by his mother, an active member of the Jewish Communists, Fischer learned from a young age how to know if he was being surveilled by the authorities (and indeed, the FBI did have a large dossier on Regina Fischer). But by time he’s sixteen-years-old, Bobby is left to raise himself, and carry the strains of adolescence, fame, and the sense of paranoia he’s already feeling about being watched, all on his own…
…but not for long. Soon, lawyer-to-the-rock-stars (with clients such as The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix) Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) is by his side, offering pro-bono services to Fischer, and to help negotiate his terms in getting a shot at the title after defeating pretty much every great player around the world. Following not long after is Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a chess playing priest who once beat a young Fischer, and is now on board to help analyze games and practice with him. But there is more to this story than just pawns and rooks. With the Vietnam War happening, the Watergate scandal making fresh headlines, and an intense Cold War with Russia underway, America needs a win. And it all rests on the unstable shoulders of young Bobby Fischer. Can he hold it together to become the world champion and score a political victory for the United States? Well, we know he does because this is based on a true story, and while Zwick does give that 1972 match the appropriate space in the film, he’s wisely more concerned about the line between genius and madness, and if it was worth Fischer essentially going crazy for the world to be gifted with his still unparalleled play.
It’s a debate that comes up more than once in “Pawn Sacrifice,” as both Paul and Father Bill grapple with what it is they’re exactly doing. While Paul is seemingly acting in the best interests of Bobby, it emerges that his patriotism and connections to people in Washington, D.C. give him an ulterior, ideological motive. Meanwhile, though initially working as Fischer’s protector, even Lombardy begins to find himself overlooking the chess player’s deteriorating mental state in order to see him play Spassky and accomplish his long dream of becoming the best player in the world.
It’s a lot to deal with narratively and thematically, and the script by Steven Knight (“Locke,” “Eastern Promises“), who rewrote the original draft by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (the pair have plenty of biopic experience under their belts with “Nixon” and “Ali“) doesn’t always get everything across clearly. Indeed, the first half of the film is also the weakest, a muddled jumble of Fischer’s life events that are hit upon quickly by Zwick with Wikipedia-like brevity. But once we get to Fischer as an adult, “Pawn Sacrifice” begins to breathe a little more, and Fischer’s mania, which at first comes across as eccentric good humor, becomes more worrying, all while the entire world has their eyes on the match in Iceland, which Paul rightly sums up as World War III, but on a chess board.
Zwick does a good job of reminding the audience of a time when America was obsessed with chess, all thanks to Fischer. The games were broadcast on ABC‘s “Wide World Of Sports,” chess clubs sprang up around the country thanks to Fischer’s rising popularity, and he became nothing short of a rock star. Yet behind the scenes, Fischer was falling apart. Played with sweaty, manic intensity by Maguire, it’s easily his best performance since 2009’s underrated “Brothers,” with his turn even overcoming Zwick’s tendency to overcompensate with sound design and editorial tricks to amp up Fischer’s increasingly conspiratorial nature, in which he believed everyone — Communists, Jews, the media — were working in tandem against him. And the film doesn’t shy away from those portions of Fischer’s personality, because as distasteful as they are, it makes him a much more interesting character.
When it comes to the big match, you might want to track down the excellent documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World” for the full blow by blow, but Zwick’s film gets to the essence of it. The showdown wasn’t just about playing Spassky, it was Fischer surviving a battle with his own psyche, with each match in the best of 24 wearing on him. Even if you don’t know your rooks from your bishops, the film still manages to transmit the tension of each contest. More importantly, it shows what was on the line emotionally and politically, with some assistance from Sarsgaard, who acts as the audience’s commentator on Fischer’s various strategies, as he watches from the sidelines. However, when it comes to Game 6 — considered one of the best chess games ever played — Zwick’s insistence on keeping things moving along undercuts the drama of the moment, one that saw Spassky lead the round of applause celebrating Fischer’s historic and astounding victory, and his marvelous play.
Overall, that’s about the same feeling you have for the film as a whole. “Pawn Sacrifice” certainly whips up a dervish of energy, and as a piece of dramatic entertainment, it’s mostly engaging, and features character actors doing very good work. And yet, the movie isn’t a definitive checkmate, with the narrative ferocity unable, try as it might, to smooth over some of the bumps in the story and gaps in the plotting. But the film, just as it happened in real life, gives us one solid, compelling reason to keep our eyes glued to the screen: Bobby Fischer. Like everyone else around him, you’ll be so enamored of his intelligence and skill that the breakdown that seems so inevitable will still be a tragic surprise. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.