Had someone told the masses that a movie about chess would be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable, tension-filled cinematic experiences of the year, that person would have suffered, derision, scorn and possible commitment to a mental facility.
However, Pawn Sacrifice, a story that tells more about the rise of chess genius Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) than his eventual fall, offers a compelling and engrossing take on how Fischer came to be the prodigy that helped lure America into a fascination with chess. It opens nationwide Friday (Sept. 25).
Fischer already has his name on one flick, Searching for Bobby Fischer, but that had little to do with him. This Ed Zwick-directed effort delves deeply into a dark pool of ambition, obsession and a slow mental disintegration. What’s more in exploring those issues, Zwick (Glory), in his first directing effort since 2010, brings a host of enthralling and occasionally acidic portrayals of assorted characters to the forefront. The most notable: that of Tobey Maguire.
Maybe Maguire is bored counting all that cash he made off that initial Spider-Man trilogy, but the man with the boyish face throws everything at bringing the life of the mentally troubled chess wunderkind to the screen. His is the obsession, the ambition and eventual toxicity as he sets out in life with but one goal after meeting a New York City chess master – becoming the world champion.
But Fischer believes – and he’s not necessarily wrong – that factors are working against him and his goal – specifically the fact that the Russians rule the chess world, but they cheat to do so – allegedly. This accusation sends him into retirement briefly.
Fischer, however, cannot stay away. He craves beating Boris Spassky (a wonderful and generally stoic Liev Schreiber) and America’s chess federation uses a friend, Fr. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) to lure him back. Lombardy and Peter Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg of Boardwalk Empire) are called on to handle Fischer as his demands become larger and his behavior more erratic.
Their purpose, however, is singular – keeping Fischer as much on a direct path toward a 24-game match with Spassky in Iceland.
Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight capture the meaning and madness of their series of their matches brilliantly. In the world as it was, they were jingoistic death matches with the outcome able to be used as propaganda by the winner’s country – U.S.S.R or the U.S. And, yes, that optic interested the American government all the way up to then Pres. Richard M. Nixon.
But those are the most fascinating moments in Pawn Sacrifice. Those come from the actors as Maguire makes us remember why he’s been compared to contemporary and friend Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s performance proves intelligent, mesmerizing and empathetic.
Schreiber is equally effective portraying Spassky as not only Fischer’s chess equal, but perhaps as an individual in possession of his own demons.
Despite some obvious darkness, there’s some joy to be found in Pawn Sacrifice. Enjoy both aspects of this film. Welcome back after a four-year hiatus, Mr. Zwick.
Movie: Pawn Sacrifice
Director: Ed Zwick
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber
Studio: Bleecker Street
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking
Running time: 114 minutes
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com