Directed by: Steven Zaillian.
Written by: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Fred Waitzkin.
Starring: Max Pomeranc (Josh Waitzkin), Joe Mantegna (Fred Waitzkin), Joan Allen (Bonnie Waitzkin), Ben Kingsley (Bruce Pandolfini), Laurence Fishburne (Vinnie), Michael Nirenberg (Jonathan Poe), Robert Stephens (Poe's Teacher), David Paymer (Kalev), Hal Scardino (Morgan), Vasek Simek (Russian Park Player), William H. Macy (Tunafish Father), Dan Hedaya (Tournament Director), Laura Linney (School Teacher).
How many times have we heard that the most talented people work the hardest? That Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or any other famous athlete may have been gifted from birth with a load of skill, but they still worked more than anyone else on improving their skills. How many movies have we seen about the sacrifices made by the gifted for the passion in their lives? We receive the message over and over again that we owe it ourselves – and our god given gifts – to make the most of the skill we have been given. But what if that single minded passion makes you miserable? What if you don’t want to focus on one thing to the exclusivity to everything else in your life? What is interesting about Steven Zallian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer is that it takes this question seriously. It is about a child chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin, who looks at a chessboard and sees things that most people who have dedicated their lives to the game will never see. He could be the next Bobby Fischer if only he would put his mind to it. The movie asks the question though – what if you don’t want to be the next Bobby Fischer. Fischer may well be the best chess player in history – he is certainly the most famous – but by all accounts, he lived a mostly miserable life. Mental illness most likely played a role in that – but what most people can agree on when it comes to Bobby Fischer is that while playing chess, no one was better. He just couldn’t do much else in his life.
When Josh’s father, Fred (Joe Mantegna) notices that his son has a gift at chess, he does everything he can to encourage it. Fred is a sportswriter, and knows the sacrifices it will take for Josh to be the best at anything. He goes to see Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) – who once worked with Fischer – to try and get him to be his teacher. Pandolfini initially doesn’t want the job – he even takes Fred to one of the prestigious chess tournaments in the country – a smoke filled room, full of men (they are almost all men), who live and breathe chess, make little money at it, and get almost no attention from the outside world. They don’t care – they play chess. He doesn’t do this to try and convince Fred not to encourage Josh – but just to give him an idea of what may be in store for Josh if he isn’t the next Bobby Fischer – but just one of the best chess players in the country.
Fred hires Pandolfini anyway, and soon Josh lives and breathes chess – he goes to many chess tournaments for children, and he wins them all. But some of the joy of the game drains out of him. He loved playing chess is Washington Square Park – his first teacher was Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) – who may in fact be homeless. Vinnie’s view of chess is almost the exact opposite of Pandolfini – there is a lot of talk about when you move your queen out, Vinnie wants to do it early, Pandolfini late. But this isn’t a movie about chess strategy – I’m still not quite sure why the queen is such a big deal. In a way it doesn’t matter. It’s not really about when you move your queen – but about taking joy in the game. This is something Josh learns before Fred – but the father eventually catches up with his son.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is the type of film that got made often in the 1990s, but I have a hard time believing would be made at all today. It isn’t a big budget movie, but it isn’t an indie either. It was written and directed by Zallian; the same year he won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Schindlers List. It has a fine cast, is well written and brilliantly shot, by the late, great Conrad Hall – who received the films one Oscar nomination for best cinematography. It is probably the definition of a middle-brow movie – but it’s a movie that works well on its own terms. 21 years later, I think it’s fair to say that Josh Waitzkin did not, in fact, become the next Bobby Fischer. The movie ends with an epilogue that tells us Josh still plays chess – among many other things – and that he is the top ranked player under 17 in America. I have no idea what became of him. I could, probably, look it up if I was so inclined – but I don’t much care. What Josh realizes in the movie is something that many adults never realize – if you’re happy, you are a success – whether or not you’re the best in the world at something. Waitzkin may never have become the next Bobby Fischer – but I find it hard to believe he didn’t live a happier life.