I normally espouse going into a film almost randomly, not knowing what I am getting into – keeps the experience fresh, you know. So it was with Pawn Sacrifice. I knew it was about chess, rather than having to hock your wedding ring to pay off your bookie, and I was right on that count. I did not know that it was about Fischer and Spassky, or that it was, horror of horrors, a biopic. Naive dunderhead I may be, I only knew it had gotten generally positive buzz, had something to do with the Cold War, and was fictional. Were that it were so! How will they (those phantom filmmakers, as I had not yet discovered it was directed by Ed Zwick) make chess interesting on the big screen? Short answer – they won’t. Instead of the cooler, more serene sequel to Pi I was hoping for, we have instead a rehashing of the life of Bobby Fischer, with the narrative edifice built around his legendary series in Iceland against Spassky in 1972. Does anyone not know this story? I feel like I’ve seen it on PBS, on the History Channel, read about it in Games magazine… so this is hardly freshly trodden ground (except that those were small screen exertions). For those who don’t know, and would remotely care (although I don’t know why), Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy born in Chicago, son of a German biophysicist (although the paternity is controversial) and physician mother Regina (played by Robin Weigert). Mom, although a consummate leftist, must leave Dad in Moscow during the onset of World War II. Our film finds Regina, now a single Mom, rearing older daughter Joan (Lily Rabe) and Bobby (Tobey Maguire) in a Brooklyn brownstone that also serves as a pressure cooker of paranoia. You see, the Feds are interested in Mom due to her politics and foreign service, so they often park out front and take photos, and Bobby is schooled from a young age in the proper etiquette of putting off impolite inquiries from G-Men. Somehow taking an early interest in chess, Bobby is quickly referred to the Brooklyn Chess Club by his psychiatrist, and is taken under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), its president. From there, we are only a series of montage sequences away from Fischer’s early, still relatively sane triumphs, and from there onward again through another series of montage sequences to the heavyweight match against the man most likely to wear sunglasses at the chess board, Mr. Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Of course, as anyone who knows the story of Bobby Fischer will understand, the montage sequences are just the skeleton over which the sinews of insanity will be draped. Bobby starts out paranoid (not unjustifiably, thanks to Mom), and gets more so exponentially. Obsessed with Spassky, yet also seemingly afraid to take him on, Fischer continually plays matches, gets to a high level of competition, then explodes, affronted by perceived slights and inequalities which grow more and more absurd and egotistical; he then makes demands, claims that he is the single most important factor in the chess equation, and pushes until, absurdly, his demands are always met. Thus reinforced, he then usually loses the match, but is now confident that he should wash, rinse, and repeat, albeit at an even more fevered and intense pitch. (You can always tell when Fischer is about to snap because Maguire gets a certain set to his jaw, looks up and to the right, into the distance, hands on hips, as if he were about to reveal himself to be Superparanoiaman). Accompanying Fischer in his endeavor to rise to the peak (and then retreat, over and over again) are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), Fischer’s fixer and personal Iago, who is driven by jingoistic Cold War “patriotism,” and the not cynical Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who sticks with Fischer (most of the time) due to a mix of compassion and deep love for the game. Eventually, we reach Reykjavik, and the movie slows to a more sluggish mix of montage sequences and hazily portrayed chess games. Yes, eventually Fischer wins, although we are spared having to see all 21 individual matches. Fischer gets a standing ovation from Spassky, which of course does nothing but arouse his suspicions (he starts going Superparanoiaman, but then realizes he has nothing to bitch about, since he is now World Champ). We then get yet another closing montage sequence detailing Fischer’s slow slide into ignominy and at least partial insanity. T h e e n d.
There are a few (and I mean damn few) bright points. Sarsgaard is likable enough as chess priest. Liev Schreiber speaks passable Russian. Time can be spent pondering if Fischer is insane, or if he is indeed playing the greatest (meta)game of all time. (This is the film’s strongest suit). Otherwise, the film really is the poster child for everything that is horrible about biopics. It is deeply boring, as it tells us a story we already know without anything but the most superficial insights into the psychology of the tale’s actors. Spassky is a Soviet tank, lumbering ever onward, crushing all opposition, while Fischer is that most charming combination, an insecure egomaniac. Having to watch scene after scene where he builds himself up as the most indispensable man in the world, and having to watch Marshall kowtow to him, does begin to achieve some degree of impact at least, as Fischer’s arrogance, no matter what the cause, becomes totally intolerable. The film tries to provide some compassion in the form of Father Lombardy (“he’s not afraid to lose… he’s afraid to win”), but Fischer, as in real life, is bulletproof. Our sympathies cannot penetrate his force field of tooth grinding jerkiness. There are more montage sequences than in an NBC Olympics broadcast, and they are of about the same quality – reductive, and telegraphing exactly which one emotion we are supposed to feel. (Admiration during young Fischer’s speed chess wins, gritty nostalgia during the oh-lord-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-watch-a-’60s-greatest-social-unrest-hits-set-to-White-Rabbit sequence, patriotism during the canned reactions to Fischer’s defeat of the Soviet menace, etc etc). And the montage sequences are cheaply done. I mean, some are crappy beyond belief. (One features a street interview, supposedly referencing the early ’70s, although looking like an ersatz ’90s music video, with three contemporary looking tween girls stuffed into tie-dyes, a lame After Effects video separation filter slapped on top). We are forced to look at idiots waving flags in slow motion celebration of an egomaniac for far longer than anyone who is not George W. Bush should have to. Having to watch every character in the film – from Mom and Sis to the guy at the front desk of a motel Fischer once stayed at – sit in front of a TV, waiting with baited breath for Fischer’s triumph, and then having to watch their feeble celebrations of that triumph (“yippee, a guy who once paid me to screw him just won a board game!”), will make you yearn for a seven hour analytic viewing of the Zapruder film with Oliver Stone sitting in your lap. But I digress. Even if we put aside the fact that Fischer’s Wikipedia entry is more compelling (and accurate), there is the fact of the portrayal of chess. It is absolutely pitiful. Chess in this film is reduced to a bunch of Rain Man style autistics shooting rapid fire notation at each other, playing games in their heads. If you don’t know how to play chess, you are patronizingly asked to sit in slack-jawed admiration of dem damn smert peeple. If you do know how to play chess, you can only sit there in slack-jawed disgust at the shallowness of the game’s representation. It is reduced to semi-mystical mumbo jumbo, emptied of any content or interest except as a site for vacant veneration. Yes, anyone watching the Spassky-Fischer match live in ’72 might have known little about chess, but at least they would have learned something by the end of the process. This film does not even attempt to achieve the pedagogical level of Wide World of Sports. Too much work, I suppose, or too much imagination required to conceive of a way to portray the abstractions of chess on a screen. What is a pawn sacrifice? You’ll never learn, nitwit. You obviously lack the IQ to drool on Fischer’s Cliff’s Notes. The only sacrifice required of you is the two hours of your life you’ll never get back.