Pawn Sacrifice – Film Review

Pawn poster

During the opening few minutes of the outstanding 1993 drama Searching for Bobby Fischer, there’s a series of short black and white news reels.  They show Bobby Fischer either playing with others, playing with Boris Spassky, or talking in his customary immodest manner to TV news, all before he vanished from public life.  The film wasn’t really about Fischer, it was about another, much younger chess player.  In the new biographical drama Pawn Sacrifice we get to see the story behind those real-life newsreels, and it’s a fascinating one.

Despite the title, which somehow sounds wrong, Pawn Sacrifice is a thoroughly engaging and intelligent account from director Edward Zwick of the rise of a man many consider to be the greatest chess player of all time.  In the same way that the earlier 1993 drama began with news footage, Pawn Sacrifice does something similar.  It gives us glimpses of the soon-to-be though unpredictable chess champion playing his Soviet nemesis, Spassky, and how in 1972 he failed to show up for Game 2.  “What will Bobby Fischer do next?” asks a TV commentator.  Cut to Fischer’s hotel room where Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is in a paranoid state, tearing the place apart, looking for bugs or any other eavesdropping devices that may be used to spy on him.

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Pawn Sacrifice jumps around.  While preparing for the much publicized ’72 set of games against Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik, Iceland, the film fills in the gaps regarding his childhood, which by all accounts was full of conflict and generally unpleasant.  Unpleasant, that is, for everyone around him.

Chess was there for him from the beginning.  “If I take the pieces away,” states his Russian immigrant mother (Robin Weigert), “He keeps playing in his head.”  And we see how he plays in his head and how he sees the future moves of the pieces.  When he loses a game to the 25th best ranked player in New York the boy angrily demands an immediate replay.  As his mother apologetically states for the belligerent behavior of her son, Fischer can’t stand losing or reaching a draw.  Plus, he’s not above shouting at his mother when he wants to concentrate on the board while practicing.  “I want silence, understand?” he declares after shockingly telling the stunned woman to f-off back to Moscow.

Throughout the film as everything points to the importance of the Reykjavik games, we are constantly treated to insights on how Fischer thinks.  He was brash, often mean and competitive to the extreme.  When someone hands him a calling card, Fischer doesn’t simply take it, he impolitely snatches it as if an inner anger is always present.  The man is making no attempt to hide it.  When Catholic priest and one-time chess grandmaster William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) tells Fischer that, “This tournament is about diplomacy,” Fischer responds with, “This tournament is about winning.”  And when in conversation with prostitute Donna (Evelyne Brochu) on a California beach, after asking her what she does for a living, Donna explains, “I screw people.”  “So do I,” Fischer replies.

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The remaining bulk of the film centers on Iceland.  Fischer constantly makes demands and is always on the verge of pulling out unless those demands are met.  “I want to play the Russians,” he states on a TV interview.  “I want to be the best in the world.  I want to play them all!”  But he only wants to play them on his own terms.  Whatever conditions are negotiated and finally agreed upon, he’s not above changing them again.  As Lombardy to tells Fischer’s accompanying, patriotic lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), “Bobby has problems.”

The success of Pawn Sacrifice relies heavily on the performance of Maguire.  With an anger that never seems to quit and a determination to have everything his way, regardless of the effect it has on those around him, Maguire captures those aggressively cantankerous qualities and presents them in a way that perfectly illustrates his inability to even recognize the man’s total lack of social diplomacy.

There’s a keen sense of period as the film integrates grainy shots of the sixties and seventies and seamlessly weaves them in, plus popular music is used to often good effect. A song doesn’t just play to indicate a period of time, it’s used as emotional punctuation.  When Fischer’s limo pulls up at the airport, CCR’s Travelin’ Band bursts over the soundtrack, and when Fischer feels good about his first win against Spassky, The Doobie Brothers’ Listen to the Music kicks in, highlighting the upbeat, celebratory senses bouncing around in Fischer’s mistrustful and often delusional mind.

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It’s a gripping film that doesn’t require an understanding of chess to be enjoyed, but it helps if you have a sense of history, particularly at the moment when an exasperated colleague declares to Fischer, “There are boys losing their lives fighting communism in Vietnam, and all Bobby has to do is play chess.”  Fischer hears, but, of course, true to himself, he’s not listening.  He doesn’t care.

If the inclination takes you, after seeing Pawn Sacrifice, try to find a copy of Searching for Bobby Fischer.  Even though it’s not about the man, it serves as a good companion piece for reasons you’ll discover in the film.  What’s interesting is that even though Fischer never saw the ’93 drama that used his name, he vehemently declared it to be an invasion of his privacy and called it a monumental swindle.  Knowing what we know of Bobby Fischer’s antagonistic, quarrelsome and confrontational ways as though he’s always spoiling for a fight, I’d take that as an endorsement.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  114 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

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