“Pawn Sacrifice” Movie Review

     Imagine how hard it would be to make a feature film centered around a champion chess player and a series of famed matches against a Russian grandmaster during the Cold War era. And yet, director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai”, “Blood Diamond”) has done just that, teaming with screenwriter Steven Knight (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”, “Eastern Promises”) to create a riveting portrayal of Bobby Fischer and the immense mental challenges he faced as a genius chess player.  Fortunately for the filmmakers, Fischer is an interesting case study.  One that goes well beyond his ability to strategically move a chess piece.  In addition, the late 1960s to early 1970s era in which the story takesplace means an infusion in behind the scenes theatrics as both the American and Russian governments compete for global domination, even within the confines of a chess match.

     It’s difficult for me not to conjure up the images of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri in their Spartans cheerleader outfits  when I think of a competitive match between two chess players.  But Zwick quickly removed any comedic thoughts out of my mind when we meet Bobby Fischer first as a young boy and you realize his story has many more layers to it then that of just a chess master.  By the time Tobey Maguire takes over as the character in his early 20s, Fischer has already established himself as both a prodigy and a completely unlikable person.  Perhaps the fact he never knew his father and that his mother continually moved between different men contributed to his harsh demeanor, but ultimately we realize there is a lot more wrong with Fischer than just the rigors of competition taking their toll. 

     When Fischer is offered the opportunity to compete in a sort of league or organization that ultimately crowns a world champion in Iceland, he seems motivated for the first time in quite awhile.  Perhaps mostly due to the fact he lost to the current champion, Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), during a point in his life when he was the most cocky and felt he was the best in the world.  This is when two important characters arrive in Fischer’s life, one new and one from his past.  In a pivotal scene, attorney Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds Fischer at an old outdoor chess game area where he used to play against adults and beat them as a child.  He offers him the opportunity to play in a circuit which if successful will pit him against his former rival.  As a sort of consultant, we also meet Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) who is requested by Fischer to be at his side throughout the competition.  The two have both spiritual and competitive history as Lombardy is also a former chess prodigy and may only be a level or two below Fischer himself.

     Zwick smartly avoids scenes during the first and second acts that feature Fischer sitting across from another player moving chess pieces as if the act of doing so would actually create any kind of excitement.  Instead we are typically shown Fischer arriving to the match and then leaving with either a win or a loss and the drama that unfolds with either result.  This was the right call since dramatizing these matches would’ve required some kind of visual representation of the mental aspects in which Fischer and his opponents would develop their strategies with each move.  Had an audience been forced to sit through two hours of that, I don’t believe we would’ve seen a film that turns out to be so effective.  This allows the story to culminate nicely when we finally arrive to the championship match against Spassky, which plays with the kind of tension equal to two countries with their fingers on the proverbial button.  It’s as if the chess board to the U.S. and Russian governments had all the same consequences as a real life version of “Risk” with neither country backing down their unwavering and unconditional support.

    Zwick stages the match between Fischer and Spassky with the benefit of the audience now knowing Fischer is suffering from a terrible mental illness that seems to control his every thought. While Spassky is undefeated in competition in a sort of background role in which we only hear him speak Russian, yet he maintains a thorough sense of cool with a larger than life persona throughout.  The fact both governments are watching so closely and have funded each competitor so as to ensure they are as well prepared as possible makes the proceedings feel as though there is much more at stake than you would originally think.  About midway through, we are told by Lombardy that the amount of possibilities and combinations a game of chess offers can have an unhealthy consuming effect on the very best players.  With Fischer, we see his mind deteriorate with a mix of overboard obsession and maddening paranoia to the point where he tears apart his hotel rooms in search of bugs and listening devices as he truly believes the Russians are spying on him in order to get a competitive advantage.  He often cites during the film that he just wants the match to be fair.  Perhaps he began to believe from a young age that many things in his life were not and as a chess player he determined a level playing field would be the one thing he could control.

     The trio of Maguire, Sarsgaard, and Stuhlbarg deliver outstanding performances in their respective roles as each contributes greatly to this fascinating character study.  Sure, one may be a little worn out by the end due to Fischer’s unlikable personality, but most will likely get past the abrasiveness and realize the true genius of his game.  If it were up to him (and this actually happens to a certain extent), Fischer would play the best in the world without any of the fanfare that came with his match against Spassky.  His preference would’ve been a small quiet room where he could go to battle, not in body, but in mind versus his adversary within a realm he could decipher better than anyone in the world.  “Pawn Sacrifice” is as much about the lengths Fischer would go to avoid attention and distraction as much as it is about his mastery of the game.  GRADE: B+