After watching Liz Garbus’ documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World several years ago and now Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, I’m learning towards the conclusion that Bobby Fischer wasn’t an incredibly interesting human being, but we continue to study him because he had a big personality and was arguably the best chess player who ever lived. Many geniuses are labeled as “temperamental”, but sometimes their temperament leans towards some redeeming aspect of their personality. Bobby Fischer, as far as we can tell, did not have any, and even in Zwick’s dramatic retelling of Fischer’s career leading up to his famous 1972 world championship, there’s no shading. The Bobby Fischer of the popular conscious is still a mean guy who was phenomenal at chess, and Zwick has barely anything to add except some mildly interesting supporting characters and plenty of news clip montages.
The film functions mostly as a biopic leading up to the 1972 showdown between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). We see how Fischer became estranged from his communist mother and caring sister, and then immersed himself in chess to become one of the best in the world before setting his sights on beating the Russians. Attorney Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) sees Fischer as a way to strike a victory in the cold war. The two then recruit the kindly chess-playing priest Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) who has Fischer’s respect since he’s one of the few people to ever defeat the wunderkind (although Lombardy admits it was only because Fischer was very young when they faced off). Together, the trio plan to defeat the Russians, but Bobby’s erratic, demanding, and paranoid behavior constantly threatens to derail their goal.
Zwick wants to keep building up Fischer as a tortured genius, and he is, although “tortured genius” usually implies that the person can earn our sympathy in some way. Personally, I don’t care that Bobby Fischer was an incredibly unlikable person. You can blame it on bad parenting or a massive ego or a chemical imbalance in his brain or any number of reasons. Whatever the cause, it still comes back to a one-dimensional person. His chess game may have been unpredictable, but you always know what you’re going to get from his personal interactions.
Like Garbus’ documentary, Zwick’s film falls into the same trap of thinking that big stakes and an exaggerated personality automatically makes for compelling drama, and it doesn’t. Zwick can employ every clichéd “crazy person” camera trick in the book—loud noises, off-kilter extreme close-ups, rapid cuts—and we’re still not really in Fischer’s head. I don’t know how Bobby Fischer viewed the world beyond “Everyone is out to get me,” and maybe that’s truly all he saw beyond chess. Either way, Zwick is giving us a hollow dramatization.
I was far more interested in spending time with Marshall, Lombardy, and especially Spassky. Marshall and Lombardy almost function as surrogate parents for Fischer as they try to both nurture his career and facilitate his success while constantly weathering his endless tantrums. It’s also fascinating to see a man of country and a man of God working so hard to help someone who’s a man of neither. Fischer is only interested in Bobby Fischer. Everyone else is a distraction.
As for Spassky, he’s about as inscrutable and defined as Ivan Drago. The movie hints that Spassky is just as paranoid as Fischer (if that’s even possible) and therefore they’re both victims of chess and the pressure of the Cold War. Perhaps giving Spassky equal time would have been redundant, but Zwick keeps coming back to the Russian champion, presumably to remind us that Fischer has an opponent. Sadly, Spassky remains an enigma to American audiences, and it’s waste of Schreiber’s talent as he’s mostly stone-faced throughout the picture.
Perhaps one day some filmmaker will be able to recapture the match that captured the world’s imagination in 1972. People understandably see something in Fischer and in chess that’s both dangerous and fascinating. But Zwick is unwilling to take any risks that would make his movie even a fraction as memorable as Fischer and Spassky’s historic showdown. Pawn Sacrifice has plenty of news clip montages (as if we have to be told by five or six newscasters about Fischer’s latest meltdown or how important the game is), and it uses a grainy filter to convey “authenticity”, but we’re never inside the game or Fischer’s mind. We still don’t understand why he was brilliant at chess. When it comes to Fischer vs. Spassky, filmmakers need to stop looking at the pieces and look at the whole board if they’re going to find an exciting angle in this tale of a man who, according to Lombardy, “wouldn’t exist” without chess.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for our other TIFF 2014 reviews:
- The Drop
- Force Majeure
- The Humbling
- The Look of Silence
- Men, Women & Children
- Mr. Turner
- The Riot Club
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya
- Welcome to Me
- What We Do in the Shadows