Silver Screen: Pawn Sacrifice ***
In Pawn Sacrifice, troubled chess master Bobby Fischer explains a misconception about the game. “People think there are lots of options, but usually there’s only one right move.”
That’s probably not true of filmmaking, but if there is a right move, director Edward Zwick hasn’t made it here. In fact, he makes nearly every wrong move possible in this familiarly rigid, maladroit biopic, which succeeds modestly thanks to its superb cast and the richness of the true story that inspired it.
Fischer is a fascinating character. The chess prodigy dominated within the sixty-four-square confines of the board, but his prickly personality turned him into a terror behind the scenes. Pawn Sacrifice thankfully doesn’t spend much time dithering over the chicken-or-egg debate about the causality between his brilliance and his selfish, volatile temperament. Both simply are.
A handful of early scenes depict little-boy Bobby raging at his free-spirited commie immigrant mother (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert) and obsessively, almost joylessly trouncing nearly every adult he meets at chess. When he does lose, he sinks into silent fury. He can only articulate himself with rooks and knights.
A series of montages hastily grows Bobby from boy wonder to young genius to the brink of number-one player in the world. Along the way he morphs into Tobey Maguire, whose glassy-eyed, ponderous look makes him appear like he’s mentally working through a game of chess anyway.
Bobby’s tendency toward meltdowns leads him to briefly quit professional chess over what he believes to be systematic cheating on behalf of Russian players to exclude him from contention. To that end, some unnamed patriot conscripts Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) to act as Fischer’s handler in order to guide him toward a decisive match with Russian champ Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) to prove his— and thus America’s— intellectual superiority. The conniving Marshall enlists the aid of chess-savvy priest Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) both to help Bobby prepare his mind and to hold it together.
Among Zwick’s cardinal sins of bad biographical filmmaking: He needlessly casts two young actors to play earlier versions of Bobby when anything gleaned here could have been more elegantly worked into the more contemporary story, which is mostly focused (but not quite focused enough) on the duel with Spassky. Zwick uses overfamiliar stock footage to contextualize the implications of Fischer’s Cold War conflict with the Ruskies, and this footage almost invariably plays out against the backdrop of the hackiest soundtrack possible.
In the blur of scenes when Bobby grows into Maguire, Zwick dials in Miller and Winwood’s “I’m a Man.” When Bobby, Marshall, and the padre hit the road for a series of international competitions, DJ Zwick drops Creedence’s “Travelling Band.” To signify the cultural shift of the 1960s, Zwick not only trots out that hoariest of era-appropriate clichés, the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” but he cranks it up when Grace Slick gets to the line “When men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go.” These on-the-nose song selections would be too blunt and dumb for a movie about checkers.
Pawn Sacrifice offers crushingly little insight into the game itself. A brief and unimaginative gimmick that visualizes Bobby’s strategizing with a series of arrows winding their way across the board adds little and is dropped immediately. Screenwriter Steven Knight offers up not even a helpful metaphor in the vein of Vladimir Nabokov, who posits the near-infinite possibilities in a chess match as a kind of symphony in his great novel The Defense, where he writes of a single bold move, “and immediately a kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony.”
Fischer, himself Jewish, was ultimately consumed by paranoia and anti-Semitic, anti-communist fervor. Zwick at least avoids the temptation to linger over the decline, although he makes the obnoxious choice to show us a few frames of the real Bobby F., wild-eyed and white haired. Showing the audience the “real” characters inevitably has the effect of crushing the artifice of a movie without adding any value.
In perhaps the film’s most interesting scene, we spend a few moments in a hotel room with Spassky, who’s similarly obsessed with multinational manipulations and electronic-listening devices. It suggests not that Spassky too is mad, but that Bobby isn’t entirely unjustified in his suspicions, even if he does draw them out to absurd conclusions.
There’s not enough Spassky. That’s partly true because Schrieber is so fantastic in the role— intense, silent, and mysterious while Bobby howls his demands. But Spassky also serves as an intriguing study in contrast and comparison— only measured against him can we even come close to understanding Bobby’s brilliance, yet the movie refuses to give him much more depth than Dolph Lundgren’s Bolshevik bruiser from Rocky IV.
Maguire’s convincing mania, Schreiber’s unnerving sense of power and control, Stuhlbarg’s wily manipulations— this makes the movie worth watching. Sarsgaard, one of the great character actors of his (or anyone’s) era, delivers a performance as empathetic and quietly conflicted that’s almost the perfect opposite of his livewire-cokehead act in the recent Black Mass. These guys are so good, you can’t not watch, even if you’re always a few moves ahead of Zwick.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.