Edward Zwick continues his hiatus from epic action films like Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond to make another biographical film more in the vein of his last directorial effort, Love and Other Drugs. This time he’s tackling a much more public and controversial figure, world chess champion Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire).
Pawn Sacrifice begins with Fischer’s early years as a child chess protege, but most of the film centres on the 1972 World Championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Much of the film’s emphasis is placed on Fischer’s increasing paranoia and difficult disposition that ultimately made himself his own biggest opponent.
Fischer’s behaviour in the early 70’s was just the beginning of an imbalance that would lead to subsequent controversy and exile, he spent the last few decades of his life in Iceland and would only show up in the news occasionally to say something anti-Semitic or condone the 9/11 terrorist attacks. My point being that Fischer lived a long, storied life, much of which would be strong subject matter for a feature film, yet Zwick chose to narrow his focus to events leading up to the 1972 championship, which is admirable but ultimately results in a repetitive film. Fischer’s paranoia and eccentricities are established early on, and while we see his antisocial behaviour worsen, ending the film with him as world champ almost justifies everything he put his friends and family through.
Matches play out predominantly in close ups of the players and the minor things that Fischer gets easily distracted by. As a fan of the game, I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis on the actual moves being made, particularly the final match with Spassky that’s considered one of the greatest chess matches of all time. The board is only ever shown in side angles, we’re never allowed the player’s birds eye view, which feels like a tease, but perhaps it was to make continuity less of a headache for the editor. They speak about the matches in general terms, a move-by-move visualization would have been much more interesting. Presumably anyone seeing this film is a fan of the game and would like to see that as well.
There were even noteworthy events within this period that Zwick chose to omit. When Fischer was only 13 years old he beat Donald Byrne, one of the best players in the country, by boldly sacrificing his queen before clearing several of Byrne’s pieces with a knight. In the Spassky era, Fischer was paying as much attention to his physical regime as his mental, by swimming and playing tennis almost every day, which is quite unorthodox for a chess player. It’s tough to imagine Maguire’s Fischer as the athletic type, which is precisely why they should have included it.
Thankfully some strong performances add merit to the film. Maguire is good in the lead role, but every time he’s complaining about his unfair treatment, we can’t help but be reminded of the whiny child actor who plays Fischer in his younger years. Some of the film’s best scenes are between the lawyer and priest, played by Michael Stulberg and Peter Sarsgaard respectively, who basically became Fischer’s handlers. Father Bill Lombardy, a talented chess player in his own right, would help Fischer practise by playing entire games verbally, without a board, the placement of each piece spoken and maintained in each player’s memory. This is impressive to watch, but Zwick still could have found a way to visualize these mental matches. Liev Schreiber as Spassky is once again the unsung hero the film, with another understated performance that doesn’t depend on the razzle-dazzle many actors try to pull, especially when doing accents.
The most interesting part of Pawn Sacrifice is seeing how popular Fischer made the game. The Cold War setting and the fact that most of the world’s best players were Russian made this phenomenon very much of its time. People watched these matches on television as if they were watching the World Cup, it’s doubtful that chess will ever be that popular again.
It would be very difficult for a feature film to tackle Fischer’s entire life, so it’s understandable why Zwick chose to concentrate on a specific era, though it still feels like he missed several opportunities to make this a truly unique film. For a more encompassing look into Fischer’s life, I recommend watching the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World.