People born past a certain year usually have only the foggiest idea who Bobby Fischer was, and if they do, they only vaguely know of him as having once been a famous chess player. And that's true, he was. Largely regarded as the greatest chess player who ever lived. But what they don't know is that he was also a paranoid schizophrenic, and his illness ruled his life with as strong a grip as the game of chess ever did, and Pawn Sacrifice seeks to remove the myth surrounding the legend and paint a more realistic portrait of his greatness.
As chess wizard Bobby Fischer, Tobey Maguire handles the delicate task of portraying a deeply ill, terrifyingly brilliant man exactly as he was. As Fischer, Maguire is abrasive, arrogant, self-absorbed, and unpredictable. But he plays it with a sly sense of humor that saves him from falling into the realm of wholly unlikable.
The film seeks to anchor Fischer's paranoid schizophrenia within the framework of an origin story and retraces his childhood, with a young Fischer eavesdropping on everything being said at one of his mother's secret Communist parties in their cramped Brooklyn apartment. "They're always watching us, Bobby," his mother says, planting the seeds of paranoia in his head.
Chess is his solace and refuge from the commotion of strangers constantly in and out of his home, of being indoctrinated into the idea of always having to look over his shoulder, to suspect everything. Chess was the life raft to which his nimble, remarkable mind clung to quiet the chaos in his head, and the film repeats a nice visual element of chess combinations floating in the air in front of him, a tangible nod to a man unable to see the world in anything other than his next move - or in his case, his next ten, and those of his opponents, too.
Fast-forward to an adult and semi-retired Fischer, disgraced and reclusive since publicly accusing the Russians of rigging the system. But the country is in the middle of a war with no shape, that isn't being settled with guns or bombs, but in the court of international public opinion. And what the U.S. government has decided it needs is a figurehead to rally around, a symbol to prove America's intellectual superiority over Russia.
So Fischer is pulled out of his self-imposed retirement by lawyer and government liaison Paul Marshall (played brilliantly by Michael Stuhlbarg) and teamed up with a second in priest, Father Bill Lombardy (played equally brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard), Fischer is convinced to go through the grueling international march toward being World Champion.
It's here that the limits of Fischer's ability to contain his madness bump up against the walls of the massive weight being put upon his shoulders, and slowly, the madness starts to win out. Director Edward Zwick is masterful at showing not just the effect Fischer's schizophrenia has on himself, but also on Lombardy and Marshall, his handlers. So much information and understanding is conveyed every time Stuhlbarg and Lombardy, in their respective roles, exchange glances over Fischer's head when he's having another break with reality. It's not just strain on Fischer, but also on the pair tasked with helping him to keep it together long enough to win everything. Each of them is a pawn in their own way, but Fischer is the one who will be the sacrificed.
Zwick also makes a very interesting decision with Liev Schrieber's character and Fischer's nemesis, Boris Spassky. As the straight man to Fischer, Spassky's self-contained aura of calm is a foil to Fischer's explosive outbursts and paranoia, and Zwick waits until the last quarter of the movie to flip the script and subvert what the audience thought it knew about him.
In the end, the great question of so many chess grandmasters remains in the realm of the chicken and the egg: Do these great men play chess because they are mad, or is it a life of chess that causes the madness?
Pawn Sacrifice never gives you the answer.