Chess players be mad crazy. This is the conceit of Edward Zwick’s latest film, Pawn Sacrifice. Telling the tale of Bobby Fischer‘s rise to the title of Chess World Champion, Zwick washes away the taste of Bobby Fischer the puny, prodigal chessmaster like with a mind-erasing swill of Everclear, replacing it with Bobby Fischer, megalomaniac, paranoid, delusional, dedicated anti-Semite. His competition, Boris Spassky, does not fare much better. These dudes ‘r’ nuts.
In past efforts, Zwick has proved a talent for turning the mundane into the aggressively cinematic. Take Blood Diamond for instance. In many other director’s hand, the film about war-zone bling bling would stray towards its socially-aware fringes (can you imagine the overwhelming sentiment were this a post-2000s Spielberg effort?) but Zwick proffers just enough political-conscious for audiences to allow his unearthing the real prize: a glossy, tight-throated thriller. So too in Defiance, he spun the tragic saga of a Jewish resistance force into a slick, dirty thrill ride. From grimy histories, Zwick mines blood diamond.
Thus the pairing of Zwick to a tale about the slippery rabbit hole that is chess is perfectly logical. If any man has the storytelling prowess to turn the narrative muddy waters of a madman sliding wood figurines around a table into cinematic two buck chuck, tis Zwick. A creative carpenter of historicity, he’s a regular Hollywood Jesus.
So it will come as no surprise that Pawn Sacrifice has a sense of inertia to it that escapes many biopics. At times, it’s positively zesty. Other moments, it’s helplessly funny. As the perpetual unstable Fischer, Tobey Maguire is afforded the chance to shine, and shine he does, with Zwick’s camera greedily planted in his face for his most caustic of meltdowns.In a way, Pawn Sacrifice is a crossbreed between A Beautiful Mind and Rush. There’s the ‘brilliant person losing touch with his sanity’ elements mixed in with the dynamics of compulsive professional obsession. Of a man who knows he can’t be beat; who demands to play by his rules and his rules alone. Fischer is a man dominated by his hubris and compulsion to dominate. Who stays up nights, cawing at his own mother to quiet down so he can concentrate. Who gives the stinkiest eye Maguire is able to conjure to anyone in his vicinity who dares even cough whilst he’s moving. If you though golf crowds were respectful, wait until you see the quiet Fischer demands. You’ll also find stirred into Maguire’s Fischer a splash of Moneyball’s Billy Beane. Pawn Sacrifice reports that after the first four moves in a chess game, there are four billion remaining possible combinations. Like Beane, Fischer’s a sportsman as statistician.
Pawn Sacrifice deals in the precipitous climbs and unceremoniously slumps of Fischer’s career as a chessman, giving some room to his most-famed period as a young prodigy. But this is no Searching For Bobby Fischer. This is Bobby Fischerking, Deranged Genius, Vicious Madman. Though his worldwide fame rose in true exponential fashion, his popularity with the public and those closest to him resembled George W’s approval ratings as POTUS. Likewise, his sanity level dipped like a hawk cruising on a low-pressure thermal.
Steven Knight’s intelligent, involving screenplay is surprisingly playful for a movie about a madman and his chessboard, discovering comic beats one wouldn’t anticipate of a movie of this nature. Similarly, the chess matches themselves prove doubly arresting, especially once Zwick sets up the stakes. To him, and to the world at large, this is no mere tournament of wits. This is WWIII on a chessboard. Each checkmate is a cerebral thermonuclear bomb, splintering the intellectual integrity of the country. Knight alludes to President Nixon placing numerous encouraging phone calls to Fischer but leaves it intentionally unclear whether this is another one of Fischer’s many delusions or the little white lies of his hopelessly encouraging two-man support structure.
As Fischer’s patriotic agent, Michael Stuhlbarg proves once more than he needs more exposure. Though the part is somewhat thin, Stuhlbarg gobbles it up still, parlaying economy for showmanship in the relatively reserved role. Peter Sarsgaard too puts in a ceremonious turn as Fischer’s second, Father Bill Lombardy. The two waiting in the wings for Fischer’s inevitable implosions are just as crucial to the narrative success of Pawn Sacrifice and each are more than willing to bring it on.
Like its centerpiece Chessmaster, the film’s victories come bundled in with its defeats. We get nowhere near enough time spent with Schreiber’s Spassky. Instead, he’s a thinly-shaded alter-ego to Fischer; equally suspicious; distressingly paranoid. At one point, he swears he feels vibrations from his chair and demands it X-rayed. He suspects listening devices are stashed within. A pair of dead flies are discovered inside.
Schreiber’s great in the role but more often than not he’s just a stand-in for a foreign intellectual invasion. More often than not, we’re peering at him from a distance, over Maguire’s hunched, skeptic’s shoulders. Narratively, Zwick treads in familiar footsteps, walking the line of celebrity’s fall from grace. For the most part though, he finds moments that distinguish his picture from those that came before and with Fischer’s inherently dramatic wild-side and Maguire’s committed performance, he’s crafted something suspiciously entertaining.
CONCLUSION: Edward Zwick and Tobey Maguire conspire to bring life to the dark side of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, resulting in an unusually entertaining account of paranoia, celebrity and sporting.