“Pawn Sacrifice” gives up its full story for Fischer’s glory
The current genius fetish in cinema — with “The Social Network” (2010) about Mark Zuckerberg, “The Imitation Game” (2014) about Alan Turing and “Steve Jobs” (2015) — highlights our obsession with the computational masterminds that have shaped our technocratic landscape. Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” (2015), however, looks back at Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), the 1972 Chess World Champion who single-handedly conquered the Soviet Chess Empire during the Cold War, showing us that irascible geniuses didn’t just work in ones and zeroes but also in pawns and knights.
Robert James Fischer began chess at age six in Brooklyn, devouring chess magazines like they were comic books, toying with pieces like action figures and decimating opponents with his sneakers still dangling off the floor. His monastic discipline robbed him of a childhood, friends and his single mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), whom Bobby saw only as an impediment to his meteoric ascent. Kings and queens became his parents, teaching him the Sicilian Defense and English Opening rather than humility and balance.
But chess demands that one sacrifice humanity and even sanity for glory. A psychiatrist admits to a worried Regina, “There are worse things to be obsessed by than chess.” The film offers a different thesis, however. With approximately 300 billion ways to play the first four moves and more possible moves than atoms in the universe, chess has caused many greats to crack under its immensity. A grandmaster must be paranoid to anticipate his opponent’s next dozen plays while enduring countless hours of isolated, dogged studying. It is a game of destabilization, breaking the aesthetic order of neatly arranged pieces into an entropic web of war. Like a young Alice, Bobby jumps down chess’s rabbit hole. Unfortunately, he never escapes and becomes quite the Mad Hatter, offing his own head in pursuit of chess sublimity.
At 15 he becomes the then-youngest chess grandmaster , then rises through chess olympiads, wiping the floor with hall of famers and eventually earning the chance to play Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the Soviet World Chess Champion, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972 for the world title. Indeed, Spassky was the Red Queen of the dominant Soviet chess empire. The Fischer/Spassky match was a Cold War microcosm played on an eight by eight grid, with the ideological weight of the free world bearing down on this Brooklyn-raised Atlas. As Fischer’s lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) admits, “We’re losing China. We’re losing Vietnam. We sure better not lose this one.” Televised across the world, this was the fight of the century for chess, inspiring a global chess-mania and making Fischer one of the most recognized faces in America.
Even the match preparation was a quasi-Cold War, with stalemates, unmet demands and exhausting tension regarding Fischer’s willingness to play Spassky. The games themselves seem less concerned with castling and checkmates and more with the psycho-dramatics of camera noises, espionage and sabotage. Even the iron-willed Spassky seems infected with Fischer’s paranoia, as he demands his chair be X-rayed for possible bugs. Ironically, all they find are two dead flies.
Yet Tobey Maguire seems to crumble under the weight of Bobby Fischer’s immensity and fails to capture his awkwardness and nervous stutters while camping up his arrogance with a permanent Cheshire grin. There is too much method to Maguire’s madness — all seems pre-calculated, with all his screaming and bluster the trappings and suits of insanity. In addition, Maguire’s small frame cannot embody the imposing stature and physicality of chess’s Cold War colossus.
Unfortunately the film has no end game and tips its king halfway through Bobby’s life by relegating his implosion to an ending credit montage. There was no détente for Fischer’s psychosis, which only intensified after his victory against Spassky. Indeed, Fischer’s companion theorizes Fischer was not afraid to lose, but afraid to win — there are no more moves after conquering the chess world. Fischer peaked at 30, and that’s where the film leaves him, alone on his pedestal after his Icelandic heroics, while the second half of his life, rife with its anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, is practically swept under the rug. While not a pretty sight, his checkered latter years are a fundamental aspect of his mythology, a cautionary tale for any young Icarus approaching the glowing flame of Fischer’s genius. By omitting his self-destruction, the film becomes a pawn stuck halfway across the board from becoming a true queen.
“Pawn Sacrifice” is playing at the Nugget Theater at 4:20 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with additional showing over the weekend.
*For the full story, watch “Bobby Fischer Against the World” (2011) a tight gem of a documentary covering all of Fischer’s life, which feels more immediate and intense than “Pawn Sacrifice.”