Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a chess nerd. That might come as a shock considering how terrible of a chess player I am, but I can confidently say that the magnitude of my theoretical knowledge of the sport in comparison to my deficit of skill is quite large. (Although much of that is owed to a very, very wide deficit).
Pawn Sacrifice gripped me as one of the more recent and most prominent attempts to delve into the life and genius (madness) of chess champion Bobby Fischer. The film takes us quickly through the years of Bobby Fischer’s childhood in Brooklyn and his initial interest in the game of chess. From there it continues as Bobby shoots up through the ranks of grandmaster and national champion. We’re given clever hints during Bobby’s adolescent years as to the burgeoning seeds of paranoia and mental illness that will come to plague him in later years, but the film wisely does not linger on these for long. However, this restraint is shattered when we observe the first of many outbursts, this time related to obscure fears of conspiracy on the part of Russian chess players during a championship. By now, Fischer, played by Tobey Maguire in a full throttle performance that does not ease up over the course of the film, has attained celebrity status for his skill and has likewise started on an unsteady path of paranoia and destruction he will continue on for the rest of his life.
The film treads on at a steady pace, taking us through the Wikipedia highlights of Bobby Fischer’s career — a stint in Santa Monica working his way through the lesser ranked champions of the world, a truncated world tour where Bobby flexes his muscles and deepens his paranoia, many phones dismantled across many hotel rooms, and a smattering of anti-Semitic rantings that come across as more half-hearted than anything. Then finally, we’re brought to a series of sequences devoted to the climactic World Championship of 1972 that pitted Bobby Fischer’s David to Boris Spassky’s giant Russian Goliath.
There are moments throughout the film that touch on the national pulse of the time. Pawn Sacrifice attempts to explore the problematic links between chess sportsmanship and moral patriotism, but soon tires of the task. There are moments of muted compassion and introspection when those close to Bobby express discomfort about his destructive methods for interacting with the world. There are moments of implied uncertainty as to the validity of his illness. There are even, fleetingly, instances of actual chess — a unique or particularly skillful move explained by an expert, or the quick chattering exchange of an imagined game sequence in casual conversation. I think I even heard the phrase “Sicilian Defense” at one point, but that could have been my imagination…
Overall, Pawn Sacrifice is a film is well put together by a team of experienced filmmakers but it is one that falls prey to a serious emotional deficit. The surrounding elements of this story are well planned and the entertainment we receive is richly packaged, but we’re left feeling hollow and unfulfilled as to why this story should have mattered to anyone in the first place.
The flaws of Pawn Sacrifice are evident in the path it chooses by which to convey its content. In biopics such as this there are often two options: character and subject matter. The best stories weave both together as symbiotic and inseparable (A Beautiful Mind, for example), but Pawn Sacrifice chooses to focus less so on the nature of chess and more on its explosive main character — Bobby Fischer.
I’ll admit I was disappointed by this choice, but this is in no way a bad narrative choice. [Stay tuned later this year for a look at Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs which does a masterful job of presenting the story of a powerful character as not wholly entwined with the powerful inventions he is associated with].
There is a magic and mathematical infinity to chess that makes the game fascinating to theorize and study, and for some people, even to play. I had hoped to see this magic attempted through storytelling, but the decision to move away from it is understandable. This same allure for chess can go often hand in hand with the obscurity of its gameplay—the idea of trying to strategize victory by way of billions of logistical combinations—and the effect is an understandably polarizing one.
(However, I contend that the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer still found ways to skillfully convey the power of chess and the machinations of the game so beautifully that the final championship match still lingers in the minds of many viewers, both novices and experts alike.)
So we’re left with what should be a strong and compelling character in the form of Bobby Fischer himself and this is where the film loses its footing. Fischer comes at us with no space to grow or escalate. He is talented and genius and unhinged all in the same from the moment we meet his fully formed adult self, and we feel fairly confident that he has no intentions of going anywhere but down. An early comment by one member of Bobby’s team to another tells us that the concern isn’t that Bobby might one day eventually crack, but rather the certainty that he will explode.
What, then, are we watching this for? Anyone distantly familiar with Fischer’s history (and likely the type of individuals intended to serve as the audience for such a film) knows when and where all explosions will occur and will find little new or compelling in Maguire’s portrayal of them. Those new to Fischer’s story and significance will have trouble finding any in this new iteration of his tale.
In the case of experts like Fischer and others, there is often a high correlation of genius with madness brought on by the extreme concentration of living one’s life within the confines of an eight-by-eight grid, and pitted against an opponent who is actively planning your demise. Or perhaps those naturally suited to paranoia are destined to excel at chess, a game in which millions of outcomes span out from the placement of a single opening move and you must always hold within your mind the many ways in which your enemy is plotting to kill you. Ultimately, like the paranoid strivings of its main character, Pawn Sacrifice tries attempts to hold within itself too many elements, too many ill-conceived pieces of story to force into meaning, and in the end it fails to deliver.