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Bleecker Street Media
 115 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Edward Zwick 
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber
Pawn Sacrifice

There is probably no game or sport less cinematic than chess. A typical chess match features two people sitting in front of a game board for hours, occasionally moving a wooden piece around. Sometimes, they stand up and stretch their legs, but mostly they sit and stare. The game is incredibly complex, for sure, but its complexity doesn’t translate well to the big screen. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in the history of filmmaking, there has been a grand total of one good non-documentary movie about chess, Searching for Bobby Fischer. One good movie until now, that is.


Thanks to that very same Bobby Fischer (who did not actually appear in the above mentioned film that bears his name), Tobey Maguire (who plays Fischer) and director Edward Zwick have actually been able to turn the game of sport into an, if not exciting than at least entertaining cinematic experience, Pawn Sacrifice. Fischer, for those too young to remember the Cold War days, was the best U.S. chess player of all time, at the peak of his game at a time when international chess was completely dominated by Soviet and other Eastern European grandmasters. Convinced that the Soviets threw matches to manipulate tournament standings in their favor, Fischer made it his mission in life to become World’s champion and beat the man who had humbled him in an earlier tournament, Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber). Eventually, Fischer bested all the other challengers and earned the right to play Spassky for the world championship in a 1972 match in Iceland.


However, Fischer was not just a brilliant chess player. Sadly, he was also a deeply disturbed man, convinced his phones were being tapped and ranting on about a Jewish conspiracy, even though he himself is Jewish. Pawn Sacrifice tries, and succeeds about as well as possible, to explain the man and just what made him tick. To that end, Maguire, cast against type as the often bombastic Fischer, gives one of his best performances.


The movie follows Fischer’s unconventional childhood, the son of a left wing, Communist inclined single mother activist (Robin Weigert). She introduces the young Fischer to chess, and he quickly becomes the best player by far in his age group and one of the best in the country. As he improves as a player, his temper fits, quirks, demands, and outright bizarre behavior also expand. Fortunately, he meets the two men who will eventually have the greatest impact on his life and his career.


First, he meets Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), an attorney with possible CIA connections who recognizes the propaganda value that an American chess champion would have in the 1960’s. Marshall has the connections and clout to help get Fischer through some of the doors that he has shut in his own face through his behavior. But, since Marshall is no chess player, he turns to Father William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Catholic priest and a pretty good chess player, who becomes Fischer’s coach, mentor, and confidante, essentially the closest thing Fischer has to a friend.


With the help of Marshall and Lombardy, Fischer embarks on an ambitious tournament schedule in which he demolishes most of his opposition, eventually winning the right to challenge Spassky for the championship. The lead-up to the match turns into a huge circus, as Americans, from President Nixon on down view Fischer as a national hero taking on the Evil Empire and coverage of the event assumes Olympic proportions.


The massive hype for the match, along with Fischer’s increasingly bizarre behavior, gives director Zwick the opportunity he needs to free himself from the static confines of the chessboard. Instead of concentrating on the move-by-move progress of each game, Zwick concentrates on the far-more-interesting peripheral activities. Actual games are shown in montages showing a couple of moves with observers commenting on how good or bad each move is.


Instead, Zwick devotes plenty of time, actually, too much time, to trying to recapture both the Cold War and California beach culture (where Fischer’s first ill-fated game against Spassky takes place) through grainy period photography and pop songs. For those who, like myself, lived through that era as a youngster, the treatment is suitable enough to evoke the appropriate memories, but younger viewers probably won’t grasp the significance of what might seem to them nothing more than intellectuals posturing in the fashion of professional wrestlers.


By reducing the movie to a standard sports film and portraying Fischer as a highly eccentric underdog, Zwick gets the audience interested in the match itself. He’s helped immensely by his two lead actors. Lieve Schreiber plays Spassky like an imperious rock star, confident and content to stay above Fischer’s antics, which he mistakes as mere showmanship rather than the manifestations of a disturbed psyche. That leads to his big blunder, his decision to accede to Fischer’s most ridiculous request instead of allowing himself to win by forfeit. He is convinced that Fischer, who blundered badly to lose the first game of the match and forfeited the second, is a beaten, frightened man looking for a way out, and the world champion does not want to provide it. When Fischer does turn the tables, he completely loses his cool in one of the best scenes in the movie.


But Pawn Sacrifice belongs to Tobey Maguire, who brings Fischer to frightening life. Maguire is more animated here than in any role I can recall, and what makes his peformance so effective is that he keeps Fischer just inside the bounds of sanity. Fischer’s delusions about being bugged are definitely paranoid, but Maguire plays him as a man who has a firm basis for his beliefs and is excited and understandably agitated rather than completely insane.


As with most true sports stories, viewers know the ending going in, of the match at least. The last few minutes of the film quickly goes over the remaining three decades of Fischer’s troubled life, one in which he never defended his title or competed at the same level. After the movie is over, the audience feels as if it has seen the best behind-the-scenes footage ever of the private Fischer. But Pawn Sacrifice never lets us inside Fischer’s head the way the best dramas do, and we get, at best, vague hints at what motivated him. It’s a limited movie about a large scale personality that goes no further than succeeding quite well in a rather minimal objective. Bobby Fischer was known for bold moves on the chessboard, but Edward Zwick avoids any such moves here. 

Read other reviews of Pawn Sacrifice:


Pawn Sacrifice (2014) on IMDb