The name Bobby Fischer might trigger a Google search for some of the internet age who haven’t at least dabbled in chess. For those who recollect the epic clashes of the ’70s—Ali vs. Frazier, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. ensconced in the heat of the Cold War—Fischer was likewise a prominent player on the international stage of conflict. His arena, while smaller and with less prospect of bloodshed, was no less tumultuous. In the bigger scheme, it plastered the chess prodigy across as many magazine covers as the two well-matched pugilists, and more so, had a profound impact on the cultural and ideological sparring between Uncle Sam and the Kremlin.
For those hoping for more than a Wikipedia regurgitation of the facts, even-keeled director Ed Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) goes beyond a dull history refresher, putting the volatile genius’ contribution to the game and global politics, as well as his struggle with mental illness, in context. It’s by the latter facet that Pawn Sacrifice gains our hearts. Fischer grew up a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn, but he was on the national stage by the time he was a preteen. Even at that young age, when his talent was glaringly obvious, he was an arrogant prick already displaying the clinical signs of delusions. As the movie has it in one early scene, he demands his mother banish her boyfriend because the soft coos from their infrequent sex disrupts his practice in their small apartment.
As a young man in the late ’60s Fischer, now played by the boyish Tobey Maguire—sporting prosthetic facial blemishes to make him look less wholesome and handsome—would become the American chess champ, face the Russians and get drubbed. When his claim the Russians teamed up to stack the deck against him went largely unheard, he told the press he quit the game. That’s where Zwick’s film takes off, transitioning from a per-usual plodding biopic into something more reflective and refreshing.
Much of the middle of the film, after Fischer’s coaxed back onto the circuit, centers on the pursuit of Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, nailing the Russian speak), the No. 1 chess player on the planet. Politically speaking, the match carried more weight than a scad of ICBM silos locked onto Washington. It’s a David-and-Goliath pitting, with Fischer as his own worst enemy. Even after early defeats, he remains patronizing and resilient, and ever demanding (ridiculous conditional requests for the match—money and anything else that might cause the occurrence of the match to fail). He also descends into a Cold War-fueled paranoia; he believes the Russians are trying to tap his phone and mess with his head. Peter Sarsgaard adds a nice stabilizing touch as Father Bill Lombardy, the voice of reason in Fischer’s ear and one of the last Americans to ever beat Bobby.
As Fischer, Maguire delivers a heartfelt, yet aptly mercurial performance that carries the film—that is, once one gets past his lazy Jewish Brooklynese drawl. You can tell Maguire prepared for the role tirelessly, but no matter; he feels a tad miscast and it’s an unfortunate distraction. Beyond that Zwick gets the zeitgeist and period sets down with seamless credibility and also does a nice job maintaining the tension and intrigue throughout the array of chess matches. It’s no small feat to make such a cerebral thing engaging over time—and for a visua-centric audience—but Zwick turns the corner nicely, mostly letting the nuance of Maguire’s twitching eyes do the heavy lifting.
In historical terms, Fischer was something of a one-hit wonder, the Rocky of the chessboard, who afterward would become homeless and a persona non grata. For all his fame and exposure, he never cashed in and retired from the public eye shortly after his meteoric rise to world notoriety, when his illnesses consumed him. Zwick, completing the arc, remains respectful of Fischer and his legacy, but also checks the record with history. It’s a bittersweet depiction, a transcendent Horatio Alger tale entwined in a Greek tragedy. Check.
Director: Ed Zwick
Writers: Steven Knight, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Paste, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. He is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.