For many years, the world of professional chess was dominated by the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R.'s reign began when Mikhail Botvinnik claimed the title of World Chess Champion in 1948, and continued until Vladimir Kramnik relinquished the title in 2007. During that span of time, only one person managed to interrupt Russia's unyielding dominance: the remarkable Bobby Fischer, who began winning U.S. Championships when he was only fourteen years old and quickly established a reputation as one of the world's most brilliant chess players.
The most dramatic moment of his career came in 1972, when the 29-year-old Fischer took on reigning World Chess Champion Boris Spassky. Like other competitive scenarios involving the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, (the space race, the “Miracle on Ice”), the chess championship was treated by many as a microcosm of the Cold War: if the two countries couldn't actually fight, they could assert their dominance in other ways. Having the brilliant Fischer on the world stage meant that America would have a rare opportunity to – if you'll pardon the phrase – beat the Soviets at their own game. Alas, there was just one problem: Fischer had a severe temperamental streak, and was as likely to be undone by his own eccentricities (refusing to show up for certain matches, demanding that matches be played in small back rooms instead of in a large auditorium, locking himself in his room and searching frantically for Russian spy equipment) as by Spassky's savvy moves.
This tense, absurd scenario is effectively explored by Edward Zwick's Pawn Sacrifice, which is less about the challenge of winning a championship than about the challenge of wrangling an exceedingly difficult potential champion. As played by Tobey Maguire, Fischer seems like a man perpetually immersed in adolescent angst and frustration... partially because Maguire is a 40-year-old-actor who still looks 17, but also because the actor successfully captures a guy who has spent so much of his life fine-tuning his skills as a chess player that he's never really bothered to tend to the development of other important parts of himself.
Fischer is the film's central character, but he's as much an enigma to the filmmakers as he was to American chess enthusiasts. His behavior is strange and contradictory; filled with eccentricities that seemingly come and go at random. He's prone to conspiracy theories, which become particularly alarming when they dovetail with his increasingly sharp antisemitism (he has a bad habit of blurting out statements like “The Jews are controlling this whole thing!” in front of reporters). The movie doesn't sand Fischer's edges off, but it does have an empathetic sense of curiosity: what broke this man, exactly? Thankfully, the film doesn't make a stab at pop psychology but merely presents the evidence and lets viewers form their own answers.
More often than not, we're viewing Fischer through the eyes of those around him. There's Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man), who becomes Bobby's manager because he has the patience to tolerate the countless headaches that job entails. There's William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard, An Education), a Catholic priest and former chess whiz who agrees to serve as the chess equivalent of a sparring partner. Finally, there's Spassky (yet another top-notch supporting turn from Liev Schreiber, Spotlight), whose begins the film cool, confident and detached but slowly starts to unravel as a result of his American opponent's odd behavior.
Zwick recognizes that many audience members probably won't be familiar with the mechanics of chess, so rather than spotlighting the individual moves being made (the significance of which would be lost on many people), he zooms in on the ticking timer that restarts after each move, on the faces of the people in the room and on the alternately reluctant and confident hands moving towards the chess board. It's always compelling on a psychological level even if we aren't given enough information to make sense of things on a gameplay level. It's a smart approach.
While the film never quite makes the transition from “interesting” to “gripping” and a few elements feel a shade underdeveloped (particularly Fischer's complicated relationship with his family), Pawn Sacrifice is pretty easily Zwick's most consistently satisfying film in quite a few years (I'd say it's his best since The Last Samurai – yes, make your Tom Cruise jokes, but it's a mighty fine piece of filmmaking). It accurately captures its central subject without attempting to “solve” him, which is an approach I'd like to see more biopics (which often overreach in search of grand epiphanies) take. Plus, it's a reminder that Maguire is one of those actors like Keanu Reeves or Colin Farrell: easy to miscast, but hugely effective in the right part.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 2015