A smart, intelligent and fascinating movie in every way, director Ed Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice makes all the right moves in this intensely watchable, sort-of biopic of the great chess grand master Bobby Fischer. But thanks to Zwick’s precise direction and camera work, and a taut script from Steven Knight (with story credit to Knight, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson), this doesn’t play like a typical Hollywood biopic at all, but rather a snapshot in time that tells you more about who Fischer really was than any linear telling of his life could possibly do.
Set during the 1972 World Chess Championship in Iceland, the film focuses on the thrilling match-up between the reluctant and diva-plus Fischer against cooler reigning champ Boris Spassky of Russia. Although Vietnam and President Nixon’s unraveling were dominating world affairs, no one seemed to care about anything else when this chess match took place. It became an event of global importance as well as a political football, and it was broadcast live around the globe. The film delves into what drove Fischer’s genius, and quite frankly Tobey Maguire in the lead role offers the single greatest screen portrayal of paranoia I have ever seen. As I say in my video review (click the link above), this is undoubtedly the star’s finest work ever. He is simply superb, as is Liev Schreiber as Spassky, speaking every word of his dialogue in Russian, a language he didn’t know at all before taking on this role. I think we have to consider him on the short list of Best Supporting Actor Oscar possibilities. In fact, the entire cast makes this movie for grownups brilliantly acted. I would note also Michael Stuhlbarg as Fischer’s lawyer and Peter Sarsgaard as the priest who became his confidante and “chess whisperer.”
It certainly isn’t easy to make the game of chess compelling for an entire two-hour movie, especially for people like me who have never played the game. But I have to say, I was on the edge of my seat watching this movie. So much of it is played in the eyes of Maguire, and it is those moments of telling silence where this story is the most compelling. Zwick and his ace cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) have found a way to make camera moves that are just as complex as all the chess board moves in the storyline.
There can be no doubt that Bobby Fischer was about as unique and tortured a champion of this game that ever was. The film briefly details his childhood obsession with it, before focusing strongly on his almost impossible, single-minded, self-obsessed nature. And actually, as it unspools, you can see how the man became as paranoid as he did. Pawn Sacrifice is a full-bodied portrait of Fischer at that period of time. It would be his peak, a rock star like no other whose chess playing ability took on more importance than a Presidential summit at the height of the Cold War ever could have. Chess fan or not, this movie will have you from start to finish.
Gail Katz, Maguire and Zwick are the producers. Maguire himself spent the better part of a decade developing the film for his production company, Material Pictures. New distributor Bleecker Street picked up the movie out of last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Do you plan to see Pawn Sacrifice? Let us know what you think.