It’s challenging to make a gripping story about the game of chess. It’s a cerebral sport of unlimited options but with “only one right move” says Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) in the biopic ‘Pawn Sacrifice.’ Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) handles the challenge with solid results. Zwick succeeds in reminding Americans of the Cold War and our obsession with beating the Russians at any cost. It’s a bizarre tale that catapulted the greatest chess player ever produced in the U.S. to international super stardom. The year was 1972 and the entire globe was fixated on the “Match of the Century” set in Reyjavik, Iceland between Fischer and Russian world chess champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).
That story in itself is compelling enough since the matches were metaphorically played out like World War III. The other half of the story is Fischer’s eccentric personality. The film touches on the prodigy at an early age living with his mother (Robin Weigert) and his sister (Lily Rabe). He was raised by a mother who was a member of the Jewish Communists and taught her son how to spot government surveillance cameras watching their home in Brooklyn. In his teens, Fischer was already gaining a reputation as the youngest United States chess champion. He literally had to raise himself and deal with the pressure of fame and later paranoia of being watched. Fischer was known for dominating the competition never seen before on a chess board.
Zwick does an excellent job showing how America became obsessed with chess thanks to Fischer. The games were even broadcast on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Fischer’s popularity became similar to a rockstar. Maguire’s portrayal of the troubled prodigy is captivating as well as uncomfortable to watch. You just want him to play the match. It is never quite clear if Fischer’s deteriorating mental state was due to the pressure from the competition or if it was always a part of him. Maguire skillfully balances that fine line between madness and genius and delivers one of the best performances of his career. Other standout performances come from the supporting cast. Two of his closest handlers are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) offering his services pro-bono and Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a chess playing priest that prepares him for his matches. As the pressure mounts with every win, they are there to help Fischer with his demons. “I can hear their thoughts,” says Fischer as he walks through airports with a paper bag over his head.
As the film continues, Fischer’s behavior grows more and more erratic. No doubt about it, there is a lot of stress riding on his shoulders to be the guy from Brooklyn to beat the Soviet Union at the game they’ve dominated for so long. His handlers wonder if they should call a doctor for Fischer. At times, Fischer shows off his arrogance to the media and brags about how the Russians are scared to play him. To a certain degree, they were afraid of him since his style of play was brash and reckless. Zwick focuses on the big showdown between Fischer and Spassky. Like prize fighters, they battled each other with game 6 considered one of the best chess games ever played. Even Spassky shows a sign of the pressure getting to him as he complains about a distracting noise coming from his chair. The narrative becomes a battle between super powers and never fully explains if Fischer was being used as a pawn by the government through it all.
It’s not until the closing credits that we see photos of the real Bobby Fischer with a scruffy, white beard. He refused to profit from any corporate endorsements after his historical victory. Why he shied away from becoming financial sound is never clear. He certainly was a complex man to play in a biopic but Maguire captures the intensity of the troubled genius impressively. ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is now playing at The Flicks and a theater near you. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/YpHXBKvmmKo.