‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is a fascinating depiction of chess champion Bobby Fischer
PHOTO BY GAIL KATZ PRODUCTIONS
Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre in SLO
What's it rated?: PG-13
What's it worth?: $8.50
What's it worth?: $9.00
Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) directs Tobey Maguire as chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, who famously competes against Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) as the Cold War raged. Fischer, who grew up in Brooklyn, found himself between two superpowers as he struggled with his own psychological demons. (114 min.)
Glen: The old canard about genius and madness being a hair’s breadth apart is on full display in this biopic about Fischer. I vaguely remember the hoopla when I was 10 years old over the world chess grudge match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, whose players proved unbeatable to all Americans except for this brash and unpredictable guy from Brooklyn. The film opens after the first two games of the famed 1972 Fischer/Spassky match in Iceland before flashing back to Bobby as a child and then a teen and finally a young adult who’s obsession with chess made him extremely disagreeable and demanding. He’s pretty hard to like, but the film manages to capture the historically unexpected interest in chess, and as Fischer begins to win against Spassky, I found myself doing something I’d never imagined possible: cheering over a chess game. Today it’s easy to forget the irrationality of the Cold War, but the deep-seated national need to defeat the Russians was palpable. The film also depicts how chess played at this level becomes all consuming and madness inducing. As one point, Bobby talks about chess theory and the memorization of tactics and patterns, finally saying that in the end, there’s nowhere to go. All players are trapped by the confines of the board, the game, and its rules.
Anna: It’s pretty amazing that this game captivated audiences the world over, given that it’s just two guys sitting at a table, silent and contemplative. Fischer was an odd guy whose highs and lows were manic and paranoid. He seemed to think that the world—or at the very least the Chess Federation—owed him something, and his demands are increasingly bold and difficult. He had no shortage of ego, frequently calling himself the best chess player in the world even before he had proven it by beating Spassky. This mixed in with his hatred of the Russians and the Jews (despite being Jewish himself) leads to a pretty unlikeable character, genius that he was. It was really interesting to get a taste of Bobby’s backstory, the first scene showing his mother speaking in Russian as she hosts a party for liberal communist sympathizers. When Bobby’s obsession with chess became worrisome, she brought him to two psychiatrists who both said she needn’t worry. Finally finding an outlet for Bobby at a church’s chess club, he’s soon mentored by some of America’s great players and before long is beating them all despite still being a young boy.
Glen: Fischer was a true prodigy and genius, and his need to win was overwhelming. As he rose to the highest echelons of the game, his demands become increasingly unreasonable—everything from demanding more money even after agreeing to a deal, to being chauffeured to matches in a limousine like the Russians. He eventually demands complete silence, no cameras or audience, and at one point he demands to play in a pingpong room because it was quieter. Many speculate that his petulance and erratic behavior was part of his strategy to psyche out his opponents, but watching him tear apart his hotel room looking for listening devices or disassembling his phone in search of bugs suggests that his paranoia was real. Both Maguire and Schreiber are good here, the latter playing Spassky as a cool-as-ice Russian rock star who acts as if Fischer’s antics don’t bother him, when in fact Fischer’s paranoia seems to be infectious. Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, one of Fischer’s former mentors, acts as his anchor, trying to rein him in when his behavior becomes too unmanageable. Likewise, Michael Stuhlbarg as attorney Paul Marshall is effective as the patriot whose goal is to make sure Fischer wins for America, no matter what he has to do to keep him focused—even if it means allowing his madness to fester. This is a fascinating film about a talented but rather horrible person.
Anna: Fischer’s life was actually pretty tragic, and after his win in 1972, he left the game and withdrew deeper and deeper into his psychosis. Father Lombardy and Marshall are debating whether or not to take Bobby to a psychiatrist, a plea Bobby’s sister, Joan, made to Marshall after increasingly worrisome letters from Bobby. When the issue of medication comes up, Lombardy states that it would be like “pouring cement down a holy well.” Maguire does a good job of conveying the compulsive paranoia that plagued Fischer, and whether it was strategy or not, his odd behavior got into his opponent’s head. We hear the world as Fischer did, especially when playing chess, every cough or rustle of paper noticed and noted. Overall I thought it was a really interesting portrayal of a mad genius who was a brief hero to America, but who had much more darkness in him than most people knew.
Sun Screen is written by Sun contributor and New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.