To most people, Bobby Fischer is the only name they know in chess. Such is the legendary status of the man behind the story of Pawn Sacrifice. The game of chess had existed for centuries before this brash young American came along, but in Bobby Fischer, competitive chess went mainstream for a moment. In doing so, Fischer left his indelible mark on the game, and the game took a piece of him forever.
Set against the backdrop of the mounting Cold War, Pawn Sacrifice does a great job of reminding us just how much of an "us versus them" attitude invaded all areas of life both in the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union. So it was that in this time, young Bobby Fischer grew up as a chess prodigy. We see him as a boy, confident, talented, but troubled at home with a mother who couldn't give him what he needed. We see him grow into the youngest chess player to accomplish several feats, besting grand champions with relative ease. But the true test for him was in facing the Russians. They were long regarded as the greatest chess players in the world. They were disciplined, and didn't make mistakes. It was this challenge that drove Bobby to a state of obsession, and one man in particular became the focus of this obsession.
Boris Spassky was the greatest chess player Russia had to offer, and a man who made short work of his American counterparts, including Bobby Fischer, when they first meet. He was everything we were led to believe about Russian athletes at that time. Cold, calculating, robotic almost. And he was representative of what we were fighting against. So when Spassky and Fischer agreed to have a 24 match chess tournament, televised to the world, to decide who truly was the greatest chess player, it was much more than just a chess game. It was a battle in the war of two proud nations. And in the game of perception, Bobby Fischer was just a pawn.
Tobey Maguire starred in this film as Bobby Fischer, and did a wonderful job capturing the slow decline into paranoia that marked Fischer's life. Like so many geniuses, Fischer had problems. Socially, he was more than awkward. But as his fame grew, his problems grew exponentially. Maguire played with the complexities of this, because it was never just a straightforward craziness. His portrayal reminded me of Tom Hulce's performance of Mozart in 1984's Amadeus. Both men were obviously brilliant, phenoms before their time, but also rather immature, vulgar to their peers, & paranoid. Maguire was magnificent in giving us all angles of that man.
His counterpart, Boris Spassky, is played by the always excellent Liev Schreiber. He's not given a lot to do other than sit at the table and wait and watch as Bobby performs all manner of craziness around him. But he's believable as the chess master who cannot be shaken.
It is Bobby's team that really rounds out the character study of the genius. Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) is as close to a trusted confidant as Bobby will allow. He is a man of the cloth who gained Bobby's respect by beating Bobby and Spassky at chess during their youths. His chess acumen is strong, and it is he who serves as the conduit to the audience regarding what Bobby is doing in the games. Sarsgaard is believable as the calming force who is just as happy running long strings of game scenarios as he is offering spiritual guidance. His counterpart on the support team is Bobby's agent, Paul Marshall. The great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays him with a tenaciousness that pushes Bobby yet pulls back when entering into the chess world that he doesn't understand. Some of my favorite moments in this movie are those between Father Lombardy & Marshall as they try to plan around Bobby's increasing paranoia and neurosis. Both men have the same end goal in mind, but often two very different approaches on how to handle their fragile friend.
Pawn Sacrifice is told through many visual aesthetics. Zwick chose to use news reports from that era to help frame his story and fill in a lot of exposition, which is a trick that can be overused, and he teetered on the edge of that throughout. He also changed up the camera angles drastically to help tell his story, flashing between grainy black and white, a vintage washed out color film look, and first person shots. I thought these were all used very well, and helped to convey both the feel of the time, but also the slow descent Bobby was feeling.
The biggest success of this film, to me, though is the way Zwick and Maguire force us into impatience with Fischer himself. Through all of his stalling and crazy demands, Bobby made himself almost a villain at the time. We are forced to sit by and watch as he continually walks away from the showdown we've been waiting for. His mental illness begins to overtake him, and the frustration builds within all involved with him. There are uncomfortable moments where you can find yourself sympathetic with Spassky for having to put up with all this. But Zwick is careful never to pass judgement on Fischer, never accusing him of grandstanding or putting on a show. He simply tells the story, and illustrates how Bobby's illness and his genius are joined together. It is a treat to watch.
Bobby Fischer shook up the chess world. He shook up the formulaic memorization of maneuvers and theories that the masters had grown so dependent on. His new attitude came at the right time for America, and as much as he needed to beat Spassky for himself, America needed a win in the court of perception against the Russians. Unfortunately, Bobby's demons overtook him soon afterward, and he lived a life mostly in exile because of it. As his friend Father Lombardy once said, "Bobby won't crack. He'll explode."
Jamison Rabbitt used to think he was good at chess until he was beaten by his 12 year old son. He now concentrates on reviewing films. You can find more from him on Twitter @mojomonthly @reelreviewstv or watch his show here. His son, meanwhile, continues to taunt him.