By GRIFFIN SMITH-NICHOLS
Throughout the paranoid confusion of his life, chess prodigy Bobby Fischer’s mental health was confronted by a perfect storm of nascent megalomania, boisterous pseudo-wartime rhetoric, the pressure of his own chauvinism and the beholding lens of a media machine eager to carve out its own stake in what was quickly recognized as the up-and-coming chess legend of the century.
The resulting strain gave his wunderkind personality a skittish, ornery streak as he batted away the press, hurling out accusations of adversarial misconduct with a self-assured petulance that even world leaders were obliged to defer to. A high school dropout, he was sometimes seemingly moved by pecuniary desires; sometimes by the prestige of a “to the victor go the spoils” train of thought — but almost always by pure fanaticism for his game of choice. Fischer was the Achilles of chess: tremendously sensitive, quick to offend, but nigh unstoppable on the warpath, walking the hairline between detestability and immortality. This is the man at the heart of Pawn Sacrifice, as interpreted by director Edward Zwick, starring Tobey Maguire.
Maguire is no cavorting Klaus Kinski when it comes to portraying a man decidedly off his rocker. His peculiar brand of psychosis is a nonchalant petulance, handling international fame and geopolitical pressures with, literally, a paper bag over his head and a penchant for phone dissection. There are nevertheless, subtleties to his performance. The Bobby Fischer that confronted Boris Spassky in 1972, while already spouting his trademark paradoxical anti-Semitism (“We are Jewish,” his baffled sister Joan Fischer is forced to clarify in the film) and suffering from a phobia of KGB bugging, was nevertheless capable of conducting a cool, collected interview on the Dick Cavett show in 1971.
That same interview, using Forrest Gump-ish digital splicing techniques, is reproduced in the film: Maguire imitates the strange, rhythmic rising and falling of his Brooklyn accent in a calm assertion that, yes, he is the greatest chess player in the world, and there is nothing anyone can do to prove otherwise. This is where Maguire shines. Bobby Fischer’s arrogance and overweening antics become positively joyous to watch, as one upstages the other. He recounts with thinly-veiled glee how he relishes breaking opponents’ egos, as though he were some deity of personified wrath. Fischer’s barely restrained manic personality bubbles beneath Maguire’s bug-eyed, pallid exterior, threatening to erupt outward at the slightest provocation.
And erupt it does. Watching the film is a cavalcade of things Bobby Fischer despised, whether it’s the luxury, slickness and vigor of his Russian opponents, headed by a Boris Spassky (played by Russophone Liev Schreiber), or the meretricious glimmer of photographers.
We see the world around, cinematically magnified: the flash and whir of cameras, the creaks of a light system and knocks at the door become deafening, irritating, giving the audience an inside view of what sets off Fischer’s mental breakdowns. One occurs on a California beach, after a crushing defeat for Fischer at the hands of Spassky: after dust-bathing an entire night on the sand, Fischer, wonderfully disheveled in a full suit and tie, wildly vows vengeance against his handsome Russian adversary out for a morning swim. Though the outcome of the penultimate championship chess match in Reykjavik is never in doubt for the pre-informed viewer, the hair-tearing effort that the legal, political, and chess cabal surrounding Fischer expends to make him drink water is nothing short of delightful.
The film’s less subtle and ultimately less satisfying sections occur, tellingly, when Fischer is not in the limelight; his melodrama is expected, and indeed, welcomed, but from other characters it’s grating. Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the oily patriot-legal agent Paul Marshall, occasionally channels his pastiched inner Ayn Rand, at the expense of an acting poker face whilst describing his pseudo-Blubo plan for a chessboard battleground between communism and liberal democracy. William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes a hand-wringing presence either to half-heartedly bolster Fischer’s ego or limply pull him into line; his prominent scenes come only when he finds himself in open conflict with Fischer.
As for the film’s cinematography, there are certain hallmarks of the biopic genre that the movie does not feel necessary to dispense with, although such a gesture might have been welcome for a man as unconventional as Fischer. A helvetica “Based on a True Story” label flashes onscreen at the film’s outset. Prolonged TV montages offer superfluous cultural background that distract from the essential story (it is doubtful whether the audience needs montages of Richard Nixon and dude surf culture to know that the 1960’s happened). This technique is nevertheless occasionally successful: a similar montage depicts the growing American chess-mania surrounding Bobby’s meteoric rise to fame. This would smack of improbability were the footage not archival.
In tracking that ascension, the film stops short of showing Fischer’s post-Reykjavik, well-publicized decline and fall. The film ends on an initially lackluster but, in retrospect, curiously satisfying bitter note: the Bobby Fischer that invigorated a nation and put chess on TV, having flown too close to the sun, is abandoned to his fate. Carried away in his chariot of glory, one cannot help but feel that he has no real purpose left. The notion that genius and madness stroll hand-in-hand is not new to cinema, or art in general, but Pawn Sacrifice creates a portrait of this dichotomy with an intimacy that is unexpected and a pleasant surprise, especially for a personality as undeniably thorny as the late, dubiously great Bobby Fischer.
Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.