Pawn Sacrifice (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking
Running Time: 114 min.

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Evelyne Brochu
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenplay: Steven Knight

Review published September 27 , 2015

Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) directs this biopic on the enigmatic genius, Bobby Fischer (Maguire, Labor Day), a chess wizard from Brooklyn who would take the media and popular culture by storm in the early 1970s when he rose to challenge the great Russian players who had dominated the game for many years.  Cocky and sure of himself, he proceeds to take down his opponents in the chess circuit, with world champion Boris Spassky (Schreiber, Fading Gigolo) is dead in his sights.  Much of the film is a build-up to the eventual match between Fischer and Spassky in the 1972 world chess championships in Reykjavik, Iceland, as well as the political implications in a Cold War environment, that everyone seemed to care about, save for Bobby Fischer, who would become an unwilling participant.

The film deals a good part of the time with the obstacles to success that Bobby Fischer experienced that came from within, as paranoia and delusions would often overtake him to the point where he could no longer give his chess matches the kind of concentration they require.  Some of this comes from growing up with a Jewish Communist mother (Weigert, Mississippi Grind), who would frequently discuss how they were being watched and the phone line being tapped.  Bobby would end up feeling these things as well throughout his adulthood, though his targets of blame would often shift to the two things his mother had been: Jewish and Communist.  Certainly, the news stories of the Watergate break-in at the time of the film's setting must have added more gasoline on the fire in his paranoid mind.  The deterioration of his mental health becomes more of the enemy than Spassky ever would be, no matter how dark and shadowy they present Schreiber, who seems to always hide his eyes behind sunglasses when not actually sitting in front of a chess board.

Edward Zwick has the unenviable task of having us root on a prickly, arrogant protagonist who isn't remotely likeable, but he manages to get us on board through his cast of supporters around him who are also cheering him on.  American audiences will also likely root for Fischer because he is an American, supported by the U.S. government, taking on the main enemy of the United States at that period in time, the Soviet Union. Perhaps it's more than a little ironic that the film about Bobby Fischer would include so much flag-waving within it given that he would be such an anti-U.S. proponent in his later years, even going so far as to call the 9/11 tragedy, "Wonderful news.," during a radio interview, which, along with his anti-Semitism, might make him seem like a classic self-loather.  Not surprisingly, while the country would root him on, he maintained very few personal relationships; the only people in his life we see particularly caring are his professional managers, his mostly estranged mother and sister, and a prostitute he hired to lose his virginity to years before.

Narrative problems exist, primarily in the film's climax between Fischer and Spassky, which is a 24-match tournament where the first contestant to 12.5 games won becomes the world champion. After the first match, we get Fischer refusing to play again on the auditorium stage where the sounds of the film cameras and the audience serve as persistent distractions.  Spassky agrees on Fisher's condition to move the match to the quiet seclusion of the Ping-Pong room.  Of course, we're not going to be shown all 24 games during a two-hour film with only minutes to spare, so Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight (Seventh Son, The Hundred-Foot Journey) decide that the sixth game will be where the movie's finale will be set (yes, six out of twenty-four games), mostly because of one thing of significance occurring during that match's conclusion that I won't spoil here. 

To set up this big moment, we're basically told how big game six is to the tournament, and how the winner of that match will likely go on to win it all, which is absurd, given that the contest going into the match is a dead heat, and there is still 75% of the matches still to come.  It's like doing a film about a historic Major League Baseball team and then stopping the film on Game 2 of the World Series.  For reasons not explained in the film that I could detect, this climax is back out in the main auditorium, which makes us wonder, if it were moved back, why we spent so much time with all of the hubbub that lasted only a fraction of the total matches, or if it is an embellishment so that the jubilation of the crowd could be shown.

Maguire delivers a fantastic performance here, even though he doesn't really resemble the actual Bobby Fischer, especially in stature, as Fischer's height was one of his main attributes at 6'1", while Maguire is only 5'8", dwarfed in head-to-head confrontations with the 6'3" Liev Schreiber.  Schreiber himself, speaking almost entirely in Russian (a language he did not speak coming into the film), is also quite magnetic with his expressions, and does make for a formidable presence to counteract the larger-than-life personality of Fischer.  Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass) and Michael Stuhlberg (Blue Jasnine) are also quite effective as Fischer's handlers who have to keep his head in the game from bout to bout.

Pawn Sacrifice is a large-scale movie that occasionally feels small, perhaps due to its segues to montages chock full of stock footage of the era, clips from news reports (some obviously fictionalized recreations for the purpose of the scene in question), as well as its insistence of an aggressively contemporary soundtrack of hits of the 1960s and early 1970s to accompany the scenes of their respective time.  Bobby growing up and losing his virginity is foreshadowed by the Spencer Davis Group's, "I'm a Man". A bout of confusion cues Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit".  A big chess victory is punctuated by The Doobie Brothers', "Listen to the Music" (I was half-hoping that, Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is" would play after every successful match, but Zwick seems to prefer oldies for this film. Shucks.)   We also have to be told how amazing Bobby's strategies sometimes are, which are hardly shown, so it's like watching a sports movie without the on-the-field drama - limiting.  We also get a good deal of Bobby's erratic behavior, and the strong suggestion of mental illness, but the hows and whys are never delved into, leaving us wondering just what his problem might have been. 

For its quality performances and as a mostly interesting historical drama, I'm giving the poorly titled Pawn Sacrifice a recommendation,  It might not always make the best moves, but it still wins its match.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo