Main cast: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Peter Sarsgaard (William Lombardy), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall)
Director: Edward Zwick
Pawn Sacrifice has two things going against it: one, instead of gun scenes and fights, it has chess in its dramatic moments, and chess is not exactly the easiest – or the most exciting – thing to capture on film; two, the main protagonist is an infamous anti-Semite and anti-American tinfoil hat-wearer, among other not-so-marketable things, and this movie is supposedly based on true events. On the second point, things can work amazingly if the movie gives two middle fingers to movie marketing conventions and doesn’t give two hoots even if only five people watch the movie, but instead, it chooses a narrative that every single perceived problem in Bobby Fischer is due to his mental instability.
Oh yes, Bobby Fischer. Within the chess people circle, he was their troubled prophet – very brilliant, but, at the same time, completely insufferable and crazy. Then again, he’s a chess genius, and geniuses are not exactly the kind of person one invites to a birthday party on one’s free will. In this movie, we see Bobby grow up in a household of a Russian mother who holds political and sexual congress with fellow communists, putting both mother and son under the scrutiny of the FBI. Poor Bobby is soon discovered to be a chess player to be admired and adored from a young age, but his mother’s loud bedroom exchanges with her partners cause Bobby to be unable to concentrate and make him scream typical “I hate you, mother!” stuff at his mother. Apparently this starts him off on the lifelong road of an anti-Semitic shade, despite having been born Jewish himself.
In this movie, Bobby’s chess-playing and ass-kicking of local chess celebrities attracts the attention of Paul Marshall, a lawyer who also manages the Rolling Stones. The script doesn’t even bother to be subtle about telling me that Paul is working for or with the FBI to use Bobby as a proxy for the Cold War that is taking place in the international chess front. You see, the Russians dominate the international chess scene, and the reigning champion, Boris Spassky, is from USSR. Paul then hooks Bobby up with the priest William Lombardy (in real life said to be Bobby’s mentor, but in this movie, he’s more like Bobby’s punching bag, reeled in to help Paul keep Bobby in line with the cause). The three of them then embark on a quest to beat the Russians at the game, and with each victory, Bobby finds mainstream success. Everyone loves chess, thanks to Bobby!
Alas, Bobby’s mental stability continues to decline. He starts listening to audiotapes that fuel his conspiracy theories, paranoia, and fear – he starts to believe that the Russians want to kill him, the Jews are behind everything, and more. His diva antics expand along with his head – he makes a long list of demands that, if unmet, results in his not showing up at all to compete. Will this eventually kill off Bobby’s career? Of course not – the movie’s climactic moment is the famous 1972 showdown between Bobby and Boris in Finland that culminates in the Game Number Six that still has chess nerds experiencing orgasmic convulsions just thinking about it.
A movie like Pawn Sacrifice has to deal with the pesky issue of how to make chess interesting, so it decides to take the easy way and completely avoid focusing on the chess games at all. Instead, it focuses on the thrill of Bobby, the underdog, beating Boris, the uggo Russian – a thrill that is inflated by shots of people getting all excited and teary-eyed over Bobby’s victories. In other words, who cares what happened in those games – Bobby is the winner, so just feel. This, I feel, is quite the shame as, in the end, it leaves the movie audience no clue as to what happened at Game Number Six at all other than Bobby apparently pulling off some surprise tricks that stump Boris silly. The script by Steven Knight probably wants this movie to appeal to people who don’t know much about chess as well, but come on, give those who do know and like chess something too!
But I’m more exasperated by the simplistic attributing of every perceived moral failing of Bobby Fischer to his mental instability. No one really knows today what happened inside that man’s head, because Bobby refused to see psychiatrists when he was alive. The movie settles on Bobby being just “crazy” – a mixture of OCD and paranoia – and, along the way, uses “crazy” to explain Bobby’s more abrasive politics and opinions that annoyed and outraged many people (the real Bobby applauded the Arab terrorists that caused the 9/11 incident, for example). This feels like a cop-out, to me – a simplification that reduces the complex, troubled, and enigmatic Bobby Fischer into this Tumblr-friendly “crazy special snowflake that can’t help himself” character that is just so sad because the meanies force him to keep playing when all his sister wants to do is to give him a hug and link him up to a shrink. The movie version of Bobby Fischer feels too much like a character whose more abrasive aspects of his personality are toned down and even dumbed down in order to make him more palatable to the masses.
Fortunately, Tobey Maguire manages to carry this movie on his shoulders. Okay, this is probably one movie in which the actor hired to play the guy is far less attractive than the guy itself, but still, Mr Maguire manages to do a marvelous job in embodying his character. His Bobby is an egomaniac and paranoid mess, but Mr Maguire’s screen presence is magnetic. While it is very easy to forget the rest of this movie, his performance is more likely to stick to the mind. On the other hand, poor Liev Schreiber has nothing to do other than to glower and growl as he is playing a stereotypical Russian villain type of character, but he gets to show off his lovely body in two scenes, though. His Boris Spassky is the hottest chess guru in a movie, even with that thing on his head, and it’s a shame he doesn’t show up in the penultimate chess game in the nude or something. What? This movie is already telling me that chess geniuses are all crazy people because of the way their minds have to work, so why not?
Anyway, Pawn Sacrifice is basically an excuse for people to praise Tobey Maguire’s acting chops. Maybe it will do as a movie for chess enthusiasts to get together and watch when nobody else would invite them to parties and such. But I still think people who really want to find out more about the crazy/fascinating genius-moron-asshole Bobby Fischer will have a more enjoyable time watching Bobby Fischer against the World.