TIFF 2014: Edward Zwick's 'Pawn Sacrifice' Reexamines Bobby Fischer
by Alex Billington
September 8, 2014
Ever since first seeing Searching for Bobby Fischer when I was a young kid, I've been intrigued by chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer and the very odd life he lived. While a few other films have been made about him, or the brilliant game(s) of chess he played, I haven't come across too much that has covered his life or dramatized it in a way that has provided this much depth. The latest film from Edward Zwick (of Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance), titled Pawn Sacrifice, was once in the works with David Fincher at the helm, and stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer telling his life story from young chess prodigy to grandmaster and world champion. It's a solid reexamination of an eccentric historic figure.
Zwick's take on Fischer's life isn't straightforward or groundbreaking, but doesn't have any tricks up its sleeves either. Pawn Sacrifice introduces us to a very young Bobby where he first realizes his potential in chess and suddenly starts beating grandmasters four times his age. This is important to observe because his formative years of adolescence shape the person he eventually becomes. His disconnect from his parents, despite his mother supporting his chess playing, make him the awkward oddball that he becomes, despite his intelligence. Soon Tobey Maguire takes over, and we follow Bobby throughout some of his historic early matches before spending the most time on his battles with the Russians. Here the film has a more political focus, showing how his matches were grander metaphorical fights between the US & USSR during the Cold War. It ends up at his showdown in Reykjavik in 1972 against Boris Spassky, played by Liev Schreiber.
I have always had a soft spot for Zwick's films and honestly found myself completely captivated by all the awkward moments and twists throughout. He knows which moments are the right ones to show, and why we need to see them to get a better understanding of the character. Bobby is a bit of a nutcase, taking apart phones out of fear they were being listened to (but it does happen, is always his excuse) and demanding outrageous requirements for his conditions, from absolute silence to food being prepared in front of him. What I appreciate is the way Zwick let's the film explore all explanations, and he doesn't really say or show that any of this is true or not, but there's enough of a subtle hint that perhaps his madness was warranted.
Above all Pawn Sacrifice is an enthralling character piece, and if it weren't lead by a number of captivating lead performances it wouldn't work at all. Thankfully Tobey Maguire gives it his all, better than he has been in years. At times I felt like I was lost in his mind, his world, forgetting that I was watching Maguire while every so often believing that his mannerisms were so accurate that I'd need to see a side-by-side comparison to confirm. On the Russian side, Liev Schreiber is outstanding as Spassky, never once speaking English but also never once breaking character. He's intense, a formidable opponent, and it is considerably exciting to see these two battle over a chess board. Even the teenage Bobby, played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, gives an impressive performance in the opening half and it makes the film that much better in the long run.
There's no better praise than to say I was fully engaged in Pawn Sacrifice from start to finish, fascinated by the politics and the sport, but also intrigued by Bobby Fischer and his peculiar mind. The who and why of him. Thankfully the film explores that side without providing any definitive hit-you-over-the-head kind of answers (even at the end when we see real archival footage of Fischer I couldn't help but wonder: was he really that crazy?) but it does give us something to chew on while we take a look back at history and observe the politics of the Cold War. It's actually impressive that a two hour film about chess and the Cold War was never once boring, and I will admit that I'm now even more intrigued by Bobby Fischer than I was before.
Alex's TIFF 2014 Rating: 8 out of 10
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