The game of chess is not widely considered a thrilling spectator sport. For a brief period in history though, it was. During the ‘Cold War’ between the Soviet Union and the US the nations’ battle for dominance played out on a black and white board of squares. American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer was slated to be the youngest world grand-master of chess. Considered to be the best chess player in America while still a teenager, he went on in 1972 to challenge and triumph over Boris Spassky the long time Soviet world chess champion, a position the USSR had held firmly since the 1948 championship.
Bobby Fischer has long been a mythic American figure. Possibly mentally ill, very likely on the autistic spectrum because of his difficulty with interpersonal relationships and social skills, but inarguably a brilliant unique mind with unparalleled strategic and analytic ability. PAWN SACRIFICE depicts Fischer with incredible finesse, showing his extraordinary volatility and unusual mental processing while allowing us to marvel at him, and at times, sympathize with him in a way which is wholly deserved. Director Edward Zwick has crafted a film which accomplishes the near impossible: We are infuriated and in love with a man who was trying, difficult and impossible to understand. What we do come to know with certaintly however, is that chess was far more than an obsession to Fischer, (although he was most certainly obsessed with the game) chess was the method he found to organize his very being. The game is a part of his actual self-identity, his paranoia, his world view, his isolation and rage. Chess is what kept Fischer, no matter how tenuously, grounded in reality and provided him with a methodology to live. And when there was no chess, the world slipped away. All of this is masterfully brought to life by Tobey Maguire in what is without question the best role he has ever played.
In PAWN SACRIFICE Maguire accomplishes what actors work their entire lives to do; to lose oneself completely in the role. It is possible that because it has been some time since he has portrayed a superhero we no longer see his face and automatically think ‘Spiderman!’ His role of Nick Carraway in THE GREAT GATSBY was low key and frankly, thankless. In PAWN SACRIFICE Maguire shows what he is truly capable of as Fischer and it is magnificent. The film takes a cerebral event and brings us to the edge of our seats with tension and excitement, never losing focus on the two primary individuals of Fischer and Boris Spassky who is played perfectly by Liev Schrieber. Concurrently it also gives good perspective to the world stage upon which the 1972 World Chess Championship was about everything but chess. The nickname the ‘Match of the Century’ was a perfect moniker for the epic battle for dominance between the world’s two superpowers of the time.
PAWN SACRIFICE brings us the support teams for both Fischer and Spassky, a small cluster of characters which enrich the film and it’s climate tremendously. Father William Lombardy, who coached Fischer from the age of 11 through the ’72 World Championship is a key character whose importance and skill is embodied by the incredible Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard keeps getting better and better and this role, being somewhat benevolent, is somewhat unusual for him of late and he is fantastic. He is Fischer’s steady wind on the tumultuous sea that was his internal life. Michael Stuhlbarg is a perfect choice for Fischer’s handler and attorney Paul Marshall. As Boris Spassky Liev Schrieber brings a physical and charismatic largess to the long time Soviet champion making him a powerful and archetypal rival, and he looks astonishingly similar to the actual Spassky. His colleague Iivo Nei (Alexandre Gorchkov) communicates volumes through his facial expressions alone. Robin Weigert and Lily Rabe as Fischer’s mother and sister, respectively, appear to give a frame of reference to his early life, but after that are largely unimportant.
The film contains some elements which are unnecessary but thankfully small. A frenzied montage of world events is distracting rather than enhancing and various random shots filmed in a grainy “old” looking film manner are annoying and add absolutely nothing to the overall look of the film. The computer enhanced interview of Maguire/Fischer with Dick Cavett is fabulous and fun, and on the whole the cinematography serves the story beautifully. PAWN SACRIFICE begs the hypothetical question whether chess itself drives people to obsession and a degree of self-destruction, or whether those who are already programmed that way – closer to the ‘edge’ shall we say – are drawn to the game. Regardless PAWN SACRIFICE is an exquisite and impeccable film about genius. And chess. Gripping and taut, the movie a career defining work for both director Zwick and Tobey Maguire. It doesn’t even matter much if you care about chess. It is a story of humanity, drive and how we humans make sense of our world.(4.5 / 5)
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michale Stuhlbard, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Running Time: 114 minutes
PAWN SACRIFICE Movie Review