It’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.
Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.
Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.
Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.