Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review - Pawn Sacrifice

  Pawn Sacrifice is a movie about the rise of chess player Bobby Fischer to top of the chess world, his battle with his mental instability, and the people that help him in his journey. I missed the movie for the single week it was in Marshalltown but rented it from Family Video when I left work early on New Years’ Eve.

  The movie cost 19 million dollars to make and grossed under 4 million which shouldn’t be very surprising. The movie was highly publicized by the United States Chess Federation but said organization has maybe 120,000 members most of which are children who don’t even know who Michael Jordan was much less Bobby Fischer. Even so, assuming every member took someone to the movie and paid $7 a ticket that would be less than $2 million. Since Fischer spent his last years as a certifiable nut case who praised the World Trade Center bombing I can’t imagine many people my age or older going for some sense of nostalgia.

  The movie hits all the high points of Fischer’s career from his ‘Game of the Century’ vs. Robert Byrne to becoming the (at the time) youngest grandmaster ever to his claim that the Russians make short draws with each other to concentrate their efforts against non-Russians to the climactic World Championship match against Boris Spassky. While hitting the high points the biopic also shows his unhappy childhood where he is taught to be paranoid by his indulgent Communist mother who goes so far as to move out of their apartment to give Bobby the space and privacy he craves.

  Being a work of fiction, it should be a surprise that the movie plays pretty loose with some facts. For example, the movie depicts Spassky defeating Fischer in the final round of the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup to win the tournament when in fact Spassky beat Fischer in the first half of the tournament and they drew in the next to last round. The details of the championship are accurate although I highly doubt Spassky applauded Fisher after losing to him in the sixth game (the climax of the movie).

  The production of the movie reminded me a lot of X-Men: Days of Future Past with both films being period pieces set in the late 60’s/early 70’s with a lot of now-classic cars and the period’s rock and roll music. The productions values were great. I liked how director Edward Zwick showed Fischer’s paranoia by having him hear voices and notice the minutest distractions and I especially liked the splicing of Maguire in the famous Fischer interview with Dick Cavett. It was easy to be immersed in the manic-depressive life of Fischer as he bounces from the highs of his victories to the lows of his defeats and subsequent blaming of external factors for his own failings.

  The acting in the movie was top notch. Tobey Maguire was very believable as the paranoid genius Fischer even though he suffered from a lack of height in the role. The actual Fischer always seemed to tower over the other chess players but Maguire is half a foot shorter and didn’t have the same imposing presence but like any great actor was able to project a larger than life appearance and since most people probably had no sence of Fischer’s imposing presence it probably made no difference. Lev Schreiber played Boris Spassky so we had Spiderman and Sabretooth battling on a chessboard which might be something for Marvel to consider for a future superhero film. I thought Schreiber would have a more prominent role in the movie based on the ads but he was more of a plot device than anything, showing how the Russian champion was treated by a rock star but had demons of his own which he displayed when he told the lamp in his room (presumably where the Russians planted a listening device in his room) that he intended to play Fischer after the game two forfeit because he wanted to win over the board and not in the backroom.

  In my opinion the best performances were by Peter Sarsgaard as Fischer’s chess confidant Father William Lombardy and Michael Stuhlbarg as the sleazy lawyer Paul Marshall that gets Fischer to return from his self-imposed retirement and indulges Fischer’s whims out of some sort of patriotic duty to beat the Russians at their own game. Sarsgaard had a dry wit and compassionate demeanor towards the mentally unstable Fischer and ably performs the roles of father and best friend. Marshall has an air of mystery about him that is never explained. He claims to not be part of the government but is seemingly able to call in favors from President Nixon and Secretary of State to help Fischer when needed.

  The movie was well done and was mostly factually correct but was a failure at the box office and garnered not a single Academy Award nomination. Why? I have to think that it was due to profiling the mentally ill Bobby Fisher who is an essentially unlikable character no matter how much sympathy he can get for his mental illness. Fischer remains to this day the name most associated with American chess and to this day continues to give chess and chess players a bad name. Chess players know all about Fischer and have no reason to shell out $10 or $20 to see his particular mix of madness, genius, and arrogance and probably most non-chess players know him as the chess champion that made headlines for his praise of the 9-11 attacks. Another reason the movie failed to connect is there are barely any women in it except for the bit parts of Fischer's mother, sister, and of course Donna the prostitute which is the only relationship Fischer has in the movie except for the priest Lombardy.

  There are plenty of great subjects for chess movies without including Bobby Fischer, unfortunately they mostly would be about Russians. For example, in 1951 a world championship match was held in Moscow between Russian challenger David Bronstein and champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Bronstein was winning by one game with 2 games left in the match when he mysteriously melted down in the next to last game and lost an endgame that was a fairly simple draw. There was speculation for years that the ‘intelligentsia’ Bronstein was pressured to lose the match to Soviet hero Botvinnik. Bronstein never confirmed he was forced to throw the match but he never denied them either. A movie about that match would be something I would pay to see.


Mark Weeks said...

Good review. FYI, Spassky *did* applaud Fischer after game 6! - Mark

Hank Anzis said...

I stand corrected, Mark. Interested readers can find confirmation at this article at