Mark Reviews Movies

Pawn Sacrifice


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Aiden Lovekamp, Conrad Pla

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 9/16/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 25, 2015

At one point in Pawn Sacrifice, two characters debate the mental state of Bobby Fischer, the most famous and, in his later years, infamous of chess masters. Actually, there are many points in the movie in which characters hold this debate. It's a subject that's more prevalent in Steven Knight's screenplay than the topic of chess.

This particular argument is notable, though, for overtly vocalizing the dichotomy of Fischer: He clearly suffers from some form of mental illness, but when that illness is not overtaking his life, the man is capable of undeniable beauty in his chess playing. This biography focuses on the first part at the expense of the second.

The movie's coda features footage of the real Fischer in those later years, as he rails against supposed global conspiracies with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism in his theory. In between those brief glimpses of the man himself, some text informs us of his seclusion from public life and his troubles with the law after breaking a United Nations embargo to play against an old foe in Yugoslavia. Even after the movie's story has been told, Knight and director Edward Zwick can't help themselves but to remind us that Fischer was troubled. Where, though, is the other side of the Fischer dichotomy?

The impression of Fischer as imparted by this movie is of a man who spent most of his time imagining that the world was against him, searching for spy equipment wherever he went, being particular about his food (lest someone try to poison him), and practicing and studying chess with a dedication that appears to be more the product of obsession than of love for the game. All of this, including the movie's emphasis on these paranoid beliefs, might be true, but on a dramatic level, that emphasis leads to something more monotonous than insightful.

The movie opens with Fischer's failure to show up to a game for the World Chess Championship and proceeds to attempt an explanation for why. It's the usual biographical structure, as a young Bobby (Aiden Lovekamp), a poor kid from Brooklyn, displays his skills to Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), plays whenever and wherever he can, and becomes a teenage Bobby (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) who wins tournaments, including becoming the youngest U.S. champion. There are signs of problems with his hypersensitivity to stimulus and his raging ego, which puts him at odds with his mother (Robin Weigert). He essentially kicks her out of her own home, citing her general noisiness and her associations with Communists.

From there, the movie follows an adult Bobby (Tobey Maguire) from one of his "retirements" from the game through to his World Championship match against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) from the Soviet Union. The sequence of events arises because Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), an attorney with mysterious ties to the U.S. government, believes Bobby is the only player who could defeat the Soviets, striking a victory in the public-relations battle of the Cold War. Bobby insists that Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Catholic priest who once defeated Spassky, serve as his second. Both Paul and Bill, as well as Bobby's sister Joan (Lily Rabe), realize that Bobby could benefit from psychiatric help, but Bill compares such an effort to "pouring cement down a holy well."

The movie's central argument is that Bobby is his own worst enemy. Even when he is on the cusp of getting everything that he wants, he is willing to forfeit the opportunity on account of his increasingly exacting demands. Most of them involve money, although many of them stem from his paranoia. He almost gives up a chance to compete in the World Championship because there's a question of whether or not the food will meet his rigorous standards (oranges that he has selected flown to his destinations and a need to see all of his meals prepared before him). It takes phone calls from Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to get him to even consider fulfilling what they see as his patriotic duty.

Bobby doesn't care for politics, as he says at one point, but he becomes entranced by the words of an evangelical Christian pundit. There are repeated shots of Bobby's face in close-up as he scans the room for sounds that are out of place (such as a clicking on the phone) and proceeds to break or disassemble everything that could be bugged.

The movie repeatedly hits these same notes over and over, relegating chess to montages accompanied by news broadcasts boasting Bobby's success and growing fame. The closest the movie comes to exploring his skills at the board does not arrive until the final championship match with Spassky (It is amusing how the Soviet player believes Bobby is engaged in a long con to convince his opponent that he's insane). Even then, Knight relies on other characters to gasp in awe or disappointment at Bobby's strategy or failures. We have to take their word for Bobby's talent.

This is by-the-numbers stuff, and it's by-the-numbers about only one side of the man and his life. Pawn Sacrifice ensures that we don't learn much about Fischer but that we repeatedly see and hear the little we do learn.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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