Of chess and men. Pawn Sacrifice is based on the true story of chess prodigy Robert “Bobby” Fischer and his quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. The game at the center of the movie takes place during the height of the cold war against the USSR. Director Edward Zwick crafts a gripping story complete with beautiful cinematography and a brilliant cast. Toby Maguire brings a neurotic charisma and acute anger to the infamous chess player that few could have done so successfully while staying true to the real life Bobby Fischer. Although watching a chess game sounds like it would make for a dreadfully boring and static story, screenwriter Steven Knight (et al) provides a screenplay reeling with intense psychological “chess” moves while remaining focussed on the game that “captured” the eyes of the world. Not surprisingly, the pretentious and unrevealing title kept general audiences from watching it, even though it was initially released during the autumn movie graveyard of September. If there was ever a mystery as to why Fischer’s mental stability greatly suffered as a result of the tournament, this movie sheds light on the obsessive compulsive struggles of a man who was focussed on beating the Soviets at their own game.
American and world-renown chess legend Bobby Fischer faces his greatest challenge yet: the world’s best chess grandmaster Soviet Boris Spassky. From the time he was 12 years old, Fischer began to capture the attention of the chess community of New York and soon the whole country. It was clear that Fischer was truly a prodigy who was destined for greatness in the strategic calculating game. In addition to having a brilliant mind for planning, predicting, and observation, he equally suffered because of his strength. Finding it nearly unbearable to tolerate anything that even slightly aggravated him, Fischer became as notorious as he was talented. Representing the United States, Fischer sees this as a strategic opportunity to outsmart and beat the Soviets, as the game is symbolic of the actual cold war that both countries were involved in. Follow his personal journey of triumph and defeat as he must play the most important game of his life with millions of people watching–some wanting him to succeed while others want him to fail.
The greatest strength in this bio pic is that it takes an otherwise boring game to watch; and creates an atmosphere of intrigue and suspense that parallels both the Cold War itself and the personal/interpersonal relationships between Fischer and his staff, family, and the public. What’s even more astonishing is that this somewhat fictional counterpart to the documentary on Bobby Fischer was able to be sourced for a feature-length narrative film. Unlike the documentary, Pawn Sacrifice goes back to the childhood and adolescent years of the prodigy in order for the audience to make a better connection with his character than can typically be done in a documentary. While the famous 21-match game takes up nearly half the screen time, there is still sufficient material, focussing on the development of Fischer, that it creates an atmosphere that draws you into the game in the latter half of the movie. Although the movie is about Fischer and chess, the degree to which Fischer shows dedication, immense passion, and uncompromising intellect can serve to make a connection with anyone who is passionate about a lifelong dream or aspiration.
One of the elements of Fisher’s upbringing that played a huge role in his anti-communistic paranoia is his mother’s communist activism. Sadly, that part of his life is merely touched upon and not explored very much. Spending more time on his mother’s activism and his hatred of anything remotely communistic could have provided more support for his bizarre behaviors during the tournament against the Soviets. While Fischer is at the center of the movie, he has two excellently written side kicks: (1) a patriotic attorney who attempts to keep Fischer on the right track as an American symbol and (2) a chess grandmaster priest who coached Fischer when he was younger and one of the only players to ever beat him. The character dynamics make the group intriguing to watch. Each so very different, but require the other in order to journey towards the chess world championship. It took amazing determination and long-suffering resilience to attempt to contain the unpredictable and extremely temperamental Bobby Fischer.
If you are looking for a movie to inspire you to be a better chess player, then you may be a little disappointed because you will see much more slapping of the time clocks than the movement of the pieces on the board; however, Zwick does cinematically work in some movements and strategy into the diegesis of the film. Thankfully the movie is shot beautifully and possesses an excellent pacing with strong diegetic structure. There is also some wonderful production and set design that will likely get overlooked since the game is really the focus and mostly occurs in very nondescript rooms. Pawn Sacrifice highlights one of the most famous chess games in all of modern history while getting a glimpse into the mind of a genius turned expat in the end.