Tobey Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice. (photo by Takashi Seida)
If there is any lingering goodwill in the world toward the late Bobby Fischer – the once-in-a-century chess whiz who achieved fame as an unlikely “Cold Warrior” – Pawn Sacrifice pretty much snuffs it out.
Veteran director Edward Zwick’s fast-paced, bleakly entertaining film builds relentlessly from Fischer’s Brooklyn childhood to his internationally celebrated 1972 showdown with Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Iceland.
A jittery retelling of the rise and zenith of a man with undiagnosed mental illness that manifested itself in paranoid (and frequently antisemitic) delusions, Pawn Sacrifice presents Fischer as a deeply unlikable and unsympathetic protagonist. He is not, to use the vernacular, someone with whom you’d like to have a beer.
Some of that can be attributed to the unfortunate casting of the eternally boyish Tobey Maguire, who plays Fischer as a petulant child rather than a calculating genius.
Maguire’s tics and tantrums do serve the film, ultimately. In a singularly subversive strategy for a mainstream movie, Steven Knight’s shrewd screenplay forces viewers to confront the fact that the social misfit and erstwhile American underdog we are rooting for is, in reality, a lunatic and a mamzer.
Pawn Sacrifice, which opened recently in Vancouver, is worth seeing for that reason, as well as to revisit a period when the Soviet Union was the United States’ great rival and – before the Miracle on Ice, before Reagan moved into the White House – a skinny, 29-year-old New York Jew emerged as the locus of national pride.
Another incentive is the always-terrific Liev Schreiber, whose delicious performance as the taciturn Spassky conveys imperiousness or bemusement with a raised eyebrow or barely perceptible head tilt. The Jewish actor, who played a Jewish Belarusian resistance leader in Zwick’s Defiance, likewise delivers his few Russian lines with a wonderful clipped accent.
While Spassky is a shades-wearing nonconformist, to the degree he could be, disdaining white shirts and ties in favor of his signature black turtleneck and blazer, Fischer is a rebel without a cause beyond his own single-minded drive to win. Actually, “destroy” is a more accurate word.
In flashbacks to his adolescence, we see the seeds of paranoia planted by his Jewish mother (played by Robin Weigert), whose communist beliefs and friends attracted FBI surveillance. The young Fischer’s trust was further eroded by her refusal to tell him who his father was.
By his teens, Fischer wouldn’t listen or take advice from anyone. Paradoxically, just a few years later, he embraced audiotapes that pinned the ills of the world on the Zionist conspiracy (among other villains).
As its title promises, Pawn Sacrifice poses the question, “What does it avail a man to win the world and lose his mind?” To its credit, the film doesn’t try to explain Fischer’s illness, nor put too much diagnostic or symbolic weight on the episodes it depicts from his youth. Consequently, it isn’t a cautionary fable except in the sense that Fischer didn’t have the tools and help to stop himself from slipping down the rabbit hole.
Fischer’s erratic behavior during the 1972 World Chess Championship led the media to portray him merely as an enigmatic, mercurial iconoclast. In one of the movie’s occasional forays into black comedy, Nixon and Kissinger telephone their support. (Apparently, among paranoids, it takes one to know one.)
That series of matches between Fischer and Spassky provides the dramatic crux of the film, and it is undeniably riveting and unpredictable.
To counter the fundamental unhappiness at Fischer’s core, as well as the static nature of chess games, Pawn Sacrifice employs rapid-fire editing and a double-LP’s worth of 1960s rock hits. The strategy effectively mitigates the main character’s depressing aspects without obscuring his legacy: Fischer was neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but an irredeemable narcissist with a mean streak.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.