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Film Review: Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice (2015; Directed by Edward Zwick)

Affecting elements of the symbolic surface distortions of the psychological thriller in an attempt to express the mindset of its paranoid and moody protagonist, Edward Zwick’s fictionalized depiction of the American chess master Bobby Fischer’s talismanic Cold War summit match with Soviet champion Boris Spassky incongruously leans into the inspirational cliches of the sports movie instead. The cinematic result can be modestly enjoyable but is mostly inconsistent in tone and shallow in insight.

Though the 1972 World Chess Championship, one of the most singular and bizarre global television phenomenons of the medium’s history, takes up the lion’s share of the later stages of Pawn Sacrifice, the film also details the rise of the brilliant but troubled American chess prodigy, played by Tobey Maguire. Breaking from his radical leftist mother (Robin Weigert), whom Fischer considers a distraction from his mastery of chess, the Brooklyn kid begins a meteoric rise through the ranks of chess players in New York City, the United States, and eventually the world. Undoubtedly brilliant and talented but also arrogant and increasingly paranoid, Fischer bristles at the global chess dominance of well-trained and organized players from the Soviet Union and is soon set against them, a plucky underdog Yank standing athwart an Evil Empire.

This Cold War narrative (a self-serving one for both Fischer and the superpower U.S.) becomes magnified tenfold as the 1972 championship match with Spassky (Liev Schreiber, alternating tight-lipped inscrutability and rock-star glamour) in remote (but neutral) Iceland approaches. Fischer’s inner circle throughout his rise to unlikely popular culture superstardom – his scraping, suffering lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his chess consiglieri William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) – find him increasingly unpredictable, intractable and impossible to control, putting his very appearance at the World Championship, let alone the possibility of his winning, in serious doubt.

Much of the story of Fischer calibrated by Pawn Sacrifice is imparted with more potent nuance in the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. The documentary film also has a more thematically compelling argument at its core, contending with a vague sense of disequilibrium that the destructive paranoia that turned Fischer into a ranting recluse was exactly the mental factor that served him so well on the chess board. Hollywood is comfortable enough with thematic suggestions that madness and genius are strange but close bedfellows, or with narratives of special ability overcoming obstacles, including those of one’s own making, to accomplish great things. But the idea that the qualities that can lead to greatness are also those that inevitably undo it and bring it crashing down into reclusive insanity? Not only is this a threat to Hollywood convention, it is anathema to essentialist American self-conceptions.

Pawn Sacrifice clearly recognizes Fischer’s descent into paralyzing suspicion and his embrace of toxic fringe ideologies (conspiratorial anti-establishmentarianism, anti-Semitism, White Power, etc.). It also operates on some fundamental level of critical awareness of the political image-wrangling around not only Fischer but also Spassky and other Soviet chessmasters; Zwick has explained its title, somewhat simplistically, as an acknowledgement that Fischer and Spassky were playing pieces in a larger geopolitical chess game between rival superpowers. But Zwick simply cannot help himself in the face of Fischer’s globally-televised triumph at the highest level of this intellectual game. He embraces the simplistic propanganda narrative of the plucky, confident kid from Brooklyn vanquishing the vast resources of the U.S.S.R. and goes all-in with a climactic swelling-score victory sequences, cutting to celebratory spectator reactions to prompt the audience to cheer along. There’s even a Slow Clap started by his defeated but admiring opponent, although that detail is surprisingly historically accurate.

Bobby Fischer emerges as a genius who is also a monster in Pawn Sacrifice. Maguire’s performance never wavers from this core truth, refusing to sugar-coat his galloping paranoia and anti-social unpleasantness, for which he deserve credit (one can only imagine how an actor like Benedict Cumberbatch, a specialist in these sorts of characters, might have gone much broader and grander and most probably missed the mark). But the film is ultimately too conventional in its orientation to effectively grapple with the troubling dimensions of Fischer’s mental disquiet and the destabilizing implication that it drives his chess acumen. It needs Fischer to be a hero, flawed but not powerfully enough to preclude identification and empathy. There lurks a vein of danger in Bobby Fischer’s story, a danger that is posed on the symbolic plane to some of the most cherished tropes of American identity. Pawn Sacrifice, made with some skill and acted with not insignificant insight, scrupulously evades facing up to that danger in any real way. Unlike Fischer, it does not go for the win but settles for the draw.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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