Pawn Sacrifice

Toby Maguire

Liev Schreiber

 reviewed by Tom-Tom

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Edward Zwick has made quite a few well researched, action packed, intelligent, and morally sound pictures from The Last Samurai to Blood Diamond. Here he levels the heft of his skills into the world of chess and the uncanny players therein. The American child prodigy Bobby Fischer, warts and all is performed in his various younger ages by a variety of talented child actors until being portrayed by Toby Maguire complete with tough New York accent. Fischer has to be the least likable role Maguire has taken on since the corrupt and abusive American soldier he played in The Good German. Chess is a game I’ve played for years without getting any better. I’m too impulsive to plan more than two or three moves ahead and I tend to concentrate too hard on my own strategy without accounting for that of my opponent’s which makes my own inevitable checkmate always a surprise. Bobby Fischer grows up never losing even once until he plays Carmine, the 25th best chess player in New York and loses. The experience shocks him. He replays every move in his head and sees what has gone wrong. He demands another game. And so continues the young prodigy’s rise in prominence. He’s not subtle about his skills. He is a braggart and a loudmouth but has the ability to support his quips. Unfortunately he occasionally suffers from paranoia, hypersensitivity to sound, and a general aversion to people in general. When he is winning, he is all confidence and energy. When his increasingly insane conditions for playing aren’t met, he whines and holes himself up in an apartment or hotel room listening to the taped ravings of the 1970’s version of the Westboro Baptist Church which raves about the “dangers” of Jews, Communists, etc and espouses equally drastic measures to “right” the world again. He sends rambling conspiracy theory ridden letters to his sister warning her about “Jew-owned New York.” In tears, when speaking with Fischer’s manager, Fischer’s sister wails, “He keeps talking about dangerous Jewish people. We’re Jewish. He’s Jewish!” Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping this very damaging side of Fischer in the film.

Balancing this very smelly part of the biopic is Fischer’s raw skill. We see him playing 8 matches at once and beating everyone he meets. That is, until he meets Boris Spassky, the Soviet Union’s chess superstar played by Liev Schreiber in the best role I’ve ever seen him in speaking Russian the whole time except for when greeting his American fans. He is handsome, muscular, and very composed drawing stark comparisons with the slightly overweight, pockmarked, boring suit wearing Fischer whose face can be described much like was Shostakovich’s, as “a bag of tics and grimaces.” He’s so full of excuses and whines about the Soviets constantly. Helping him (putting up with him is more like it) are a priest who has the honor of having beaten both Spassky and Fischer once albeit long ago and a lawyer, who may also be working for, or at least with, the CIA. The tensions between the USSR and the US are at their post Cuban Missile Crisis height. A chess exhibition is held in California and some top Russian players arrive for a friendly meeting of the minds. Fischer fares well against all until he plays Spassky and is soundly defeated. Reporters hound him jeering, “How does it feel to lose?” to which he fires back, “Would you understand me if I explained to you?”

The film’s showdown takes place in Iceland at the 1972 World Championship Match. Fischer cleans through the best players and then begins the big one but it gets off to a disappointing start as Fischer’s conditions for playing get absurd complaining about loud video cameras and wanting to play in the ping pong room. What follows, eventually is some of the most suspenseful scenes in film despite their being about chess. It’s great to watch and does so without getting overly technical. We’re able to get beyond Fischer’s skeletons and the political machinations and just enjoy two chess geniuses doing what they do best. There is plenty of sign of times music, styles, American interest in chess blooms and blossoms. There is a sad epilogue to the film which took my breath away and made me wonder about the state of mental illness in America.