Strange how the lives of American cultural heroes go. Some are utterly forgotten, some (such as Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner) refuse to ever go away while others recede into that category of historical footnotes and entries in Wikipedia enshrined with their legendary feats.
Once celebrated, they are now part of our faulty collective memory. Sometimes it takes a movie or TV doc to jog these memories loose.
This certainly is the case for Bobby Fischer, and a most peculiar case it was. To some he was the greatest chess master of them all. Without any doubt he was the most mysterious, enigmatic figure in chess history, a figure shrouded in myth, self-destruction and controversy.
Since his great matches in the early ‘70s naturally came against Russians, a people that somehow produce the greatest masters in the game, he became a symbol in Cold War America for the plucky American can-do spirit going up against the evil empire of the Soviet Union, an empire he himself railed against for any number of reasons both rational and irrational.
Thus his status as a cultural icon, albeit a disgraced one since his anti-American and anti-Semitic fulminations in later years turned off the American public, even those who recognized the fact he was Jewish — he refused to recognize this fact however — and no doubt mentally ill.
Once a divisive figure, he is for most Americans who even remember him a Cold War figure from the murky past. In chess circles, however, his games are still studied with religious devotion and the Fischer clock is now the standard in most major chess tournaments.
Edward Zwick tries his damndest to resurrect Bobby Fischer from fable and forgetfulness in his movie “Pawn Sacrifice.” He mostly succeeds, thanks in large measure to a powerful, hypnotic performance by Tobey Maguire and some sturdy supporting work by Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg and most certainly Liv Schreiber as Fischer’s Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky.
To get one’s arms around the life and career of Bobby Fischer, if only up to his 1972 defeat of Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, by which time Fischer was merely 29 (he died in 2008 at age 64), would require a miniseries at the very least.
The number of championship matches, frequent outbursts against everything and everyone, his paranoia and other possible psychoses (never apparently diagnosed or treated) and complex if not confusing relationships with everyone in his life overwhelm a conventional biopic.
And “Pawn Sacrifice” is nothing if not a conventional biopic.
So the film comes down to the choices made by Zwick and his fine screenwriter Steven Knight (“Locke,” “Eastern Promises”). What do you emphasize? What do you ignore?
There is, for instance, a strange interlude with Santa Monica hooker (Evelyne Brochu) during an early chess championship in that beach city. The apparently fictional character even appears later in the film as one of many Americans glued to TV watching the Reykjavik tournament. Why such a disproportionate emphasis on her?
Meanwhile Bobby’s own mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), recedes ever into the background in the early scenes then virtually disappears altogether. She would seem to be a key figure, however.
Indeed one of young Bobby’s first complaints in the movie, which proceeds in chronological order, is against her mother for a) her leftist affiliations, b) her many boyfriends, and c) her unwillingness to disclose to Bobby who his biological father was.
Somehow the movie never quite gets to the bottom of any of this but these charges linger on in, if nothing else, Bobby’s increasing paranoia. No doubt the FBI kept Russian-speaking Regina and her lefty friends under surveillance. Did this play into Bobby’s growing concern that every room and phone in his life was bugged and his increasing distrust of his closest allies?
The movie never makes that case. Rather it presents the facts (other than fictional hookers, that is) and lets you decide.
Two younger actors (Aiden Lovekamp, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) portray Bobby during his boyhood and teenage years in New York. During this time he demonstrates an astonishing talent for chess, nurtured by his encouraging first teacher, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla).
Even here you notice his intellect and passion for playing encourage a severe level of dedication, study and competitiveness. This translates into hostility toward any person or any background noise he perceives as a distraction. Mothers included.
Does this early arrogance also translate into his later mania for just the right conditions for play otherwise he’ll refuse to play at all? Again, this is up to you.
By the time Fischer (now played by Maguire) storms out of the 1962 Chess Olympiad in Varna, Bulgaria, he’s in grand form. He accuses Soviet players of cheating. This gets glossed over in the movie — indeed some may not even fully understand his objections — but there certainly was evidence this was true and reforms followed much later.
In order to bring the viewer closer to this often off-putting man, the filmmakers bring aboard an entourage to talk things over with Bobby. These are Paul Marshall (Stuhbarg), a patriotic lawyer/agent who gloms onto Bobby as a potential propaganda tool against the Soviets, and William Lombardy (Sarsgaard), a priest and one time chess grandmaster who acts as his coach.
The former is possibly another fictional or perhaps composite character but Lombardy was indeed his personal coach for many years. He was, in fact, the one, unmentioned in the movie which otherwise does dwell on this point, who told Bobby to never accept draw offers.
Chess is inherently uncinematic but Zwick truly makes the matches into riveting, intensely stimulating events, with the quickening pace of shots of players banging their pieces on the chessboard, clicking their game clocks back and forth and piercing looks on faces frozen in concentration.
If you like me know nothing about chess, you nevertheless get caught up in the excitement of each game, which is otherwise adequately explained by commentators or sometimes Lombardy responding to questions from Marshall.
All roads in this movie lead to Reykjavik and the world championship showdown with Spassky. This is the heart and guts of the movie and here Zwick and Knight truly shine. There’s as much tensions, shifting strategies, guesswork and manipulation going on to equal that in the deadly high-stakes poker game in “Casino Royale.”
By this time, Bobby Fischer has become increasingly difficult to manage for Lombardy and Marshall. (He even dodges them at the New York airport and doesn’t make the first flight to Reykjavik.) He loses the first game and forfeits the second — putting himself into a seemingly impossible hole to climb out of — due to outrageous demands.
The noise of the cameras and coughs in the crowds distract him. He insists the third game be played in a small rec room to be viewed by the audience on TV monitors. Spassky refuses to win by default. Where you might see a man in mental meltdown, Spassky sees a man cleverly manipulating him and the tournament to his own ends and means.
Agreeing to the rec room, now Spassky himself finds strange vibrations coming from his swivel chair and does a thorough inspection of this chair. The movie seems to be making the case that chess champions are naturally prone to paranoia and even mental aberrations!
The movie brilliantly succeeds in making these matches and its two protagonists utterly compelling. What it can’t do is resolve any of the issues in the case of Bobby Fischer.
Maguire is perfect casting. In all his roles, even when playing not so nice guys as in “The Good German,” there remains something inherently nice about the actor. You want to like him. So in playing such a disturbed though brilliant man as Bobby Fischer he makes the audience part of his own conspiracy, part of his own paranoia.
Maguire gives a human dimension to the outbursts and childish behavior that makes the anti-Russian and anti-Semitic outbursts seem somehow part of his greater psychological issues.
Perhaps the key point in all of Bobby’s demands and self-sabotage comes when Lombardy remarks that Bobby isn’t afraid of losing, which everyone assumes, but rather he’s afraid of what will happen should he win.
Schreiber, who performs nearly all his role in fluent Russian, manages the feat of playing a man of enormous ego who you suspect is never quite as sure of himself as he wants everyone to believe. Confident in his game, he lacks confidence in how to react to his unpredictable opponent, unpredictable both in personal behavior and unorthodox play.
As a player Bobby Fischer came at an opponent from all sides with moves that befuddled even his closest aides. And true to Lombardy’s point, once Fischer won he faded into continuing mental deterioration, forfeiture of his title, the life of a perpetual émigré and finally obscurity.
The movie captures this sadness within his greatest triumph. Zwick and Maguire have brought back, if only for the movie’s running time, the man who was used as a mascot for the fight against the evil empire perhaps at the expense of his own mental health.
Opens: September 16, 2015 (Bleecker Street)
Production companies: GMK Productions, Material Pictures, MICA Entertainment
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liv Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Evelyne Brochu
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Gail Katz, Tobey Maguire, Edward Zwick
Executive producers: Dale Armin Johnson, Josetta Perotta, Glenn P. Murray, Julie B. May, Stephen J. Rivele, Christophe Wilkinson, Kevin Frakes
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Isabelle Guay
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
PG-13 rating, 116 minutes