Directed by: Edward Zwick.
Written by: Steven Knight and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson.
Starring: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Sophie Nélisse (Young Joan), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer), Evelyne Brochu (Donna), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Teen Bobby Fischer), Aiden Lovekamp (Young Bobby Fischer).
There is a reason why, even if the sport continues to wane in popularity, that we continually get a lot of boxing movies. While it’s true there is a lot of strategy in boxing, you don’t really need to know that when you watch it – certainly not as it is presented in the movies, where two guys enter the ring and beat the crap out of each other. It’s easier to follow in a movie than most sports, and provides very easy analogies to life. Chess, is not boxing, but it is a kind of intellectual sparing – where two people sit on opposite sides of a board, and try to out think and out maneuver the other guy. The problem with representing chess cinematically is, that unless you understand the game, you have no real idea what the hell they’re doing. In the climatic match in Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, everyone on screen is losing their shit over the maneuvers that Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is making – and to be honest, I have no idea why. I’m sure it was brilliant, and to give the movie some credit, it probably explains as much as it can in those few minutes without sapping the movie of the tension it is building in those moments, but to someone like me, who has a rudimentary (at best) understanding of the game, the intricacies of what Fischer is doing in that game is lost on me. This isn’t the biggest problem with Pawn Sacrifice – but it’s one of them.
The bigger problem is that the film really does try to be a Bobby Fischer biopic – with scenes of him as a child chess prodigy, and then a teenager, and then a young man yelling about how the Russians are cheating, and then him slowly getting back into competitive chess, and finally – in the last half, focusing on the World Series of Chess, where he played a 24 match tournament against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the Soviet Grand Master. If Fischer was not the best chess player in history – and many would argue that he was – he was certainly the most famous one – a genius, who had a feel for the game from a young age, and studied it non-stop throughout his life, who was also tormented by mental illness. By the time Pawn Sacrifice ends, Fischer hasn’t gone completely off the deep end, as he eventually would, but he’s well on his way there – with those helpful end title cards telling us about the sad final 40 years of Fischer’s life.
Fischer’s life is not really the stuff that standard issue biopics are made out of – as much as Edward Zwick tries to force it into that box. There is quite a lot of stuff about Fischer’s family – in particular his mother – in the film, but it never really leads anywhere. What we get instead is many scenes of Fischer screaming at people, and making demands. He has two close confidants – a Priest (Peter Sarsgaard), who is also very good at chess who is able to talk him down often and a lawyer (Michael Stuhlberg) who seemingly knows little about chess – but is a patriot and wants to see an American beat the Russians at chess, and who helps Fischer set up the matches that will allow him to do that. Maguire as Fischer is actually quite good – it is a one note performance, in which Fischer’s madness and genius are intertwined, but that’s what the movie asks of him, and it is what he delivers. After a series of performances where I didn’t think much of Maguire, I think he’s quite good here. It’s just that the story has nowhere to go.
A more interesting story takes place in the background – and that is the one of Boris Spassky, the Soviet Grand Master. For much of the first half of the movie, he is seen at a distance, always calm and cool, and wearing sunglasses – striking an intimidating pose. In the final act however, he is given slightly more depth – as we learn about him, and it becomes clear that he is a man or principle, and one who bristles at the control the Soviets want to have him under. That is an interesting story – and one that Pawn Sacrifice barely touches upon – although I would have liked to see far more of it.
Edward Zwick has never been the most adventuresome of directors – making these middle brow dramas, that sometimes turn out great (Glory, Courage Under Fire), and sometimes not so much (Blood Diamond, Defiance). He does the job you expect him to in Pawn Sacrifice – yes, there are a lot of clichés thrown on the screen, and nothing overly exciting, but that is what you expect from Zwick. The real problem is both that chess just isn’t overly cinematic, and Fischer’s story doesn’t really go anywhere. There may be an interesting story in the great Fischer/Spassky face-off in Iceland – I just have a feeling that Pawn Sacrifice focuses on the wrong one.