More than two decades ago Stephen Zaillian was able to make chess exciting in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” about a boy who might become a new grandmaster, and now Edward Zwick manages the same feat in his biographical treatment of the tortured genius himself. That’s a surprise coming from a director who has in the past managed to deaden more overtly dramatic subjects. Perhaps it’s because Zwick has set aside, at least temporarily, his usual desire to act like a modern-day Stanley Kramer and pontificate on some big social issue. At heart “Pawn Sacrifice” is just a textbook sports movie, even if one in which the game is a cerebral exercise and the ending follows the triumph with tragedy. But it works splendidly on that level.
After an introductory scene showing Fischer forfeiting a game and huddled in emotional turmoil during his famed match with world champion Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972, the chronology is turned back and he’s shown as a boy (first Aiden Lovekamp, then Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) growing up in New York City with his single mother Regina (Robin Weigert), who’s more interested in her work for left-wing causes, which bring the family under government surveillance, and her string of short-term lovers, than her son. Amid the family’s stresses and strains, he exhibits an almost preternatural ability at chess, which is cultivated by his first instructor, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), President of the Brooklyn Chess Club. But—with the role now taken over by Maguire—he becomes enraged by what he perceives as “team play” by the dominant Russians that keep outsiders like him from any real chance of rising to the top in competitive tournaments.
After turning his back on the chess world in disgust in 1962, he’s approached later in the decade by lawyer-entrepreneur Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who sees him as a means of proving American superiority in a field in which the hated Soviets are universally accepted as unassailable and promises him the sort of support he’d never before received. Marshall also recruits Fr. William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a former chess prodigy himself, to assume the role of Fischer’s trainer.
As it turns out, Fischer is used as a pawn by each man in a different way. Marshall wants to employ him as a Cold War soldier whose victories will prove American superiority; at one crucial point he even arranges for the Nixon Administration to encourage Fischer with a personal phone call from Henry Kissinger. Lombardy, on the other hand, is less concerned with geopolitical struggles than with the art of the game, at which he perceives Fischer as a unique genius whose gift needs to be nurtured. While both men are concerned about Fischer’s obvious mental distress as he climbs the ladder toward the face-off with Spassky (the excellent Liev Schreiber)—his rants about conspiracies and habit of fleeing from them in the face his own paranoid fantasies—they resist getting him psychiatric help, even though his sister (Lily Rabe) advises them to do so. Each is reluctant, for his different reasons, to interfere overmuch with—and perhaps cripple—his talent, however dangerous inaction might be.
And, of course, Fischer does pull off a victory in Reykjavik despite falling almost hopelessly behind as he struggles with his personal demons (and, perhaps, engages in a quite deliberate bit of psychological warfare against his opponent). The staging of the games—as well as the surrounding action in Reykjavik—is expertly handled by the actors, Zwick, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Steven Rosenblum, and makes for some genuine excitement, followed by a few downbeat newsreel clips sketching the rest of Fischer’s unhappy life.
That final act points up what will certainly be chess fans’ major complaint about “Pawn Sacrifice”—it doesn’t make the actual strategy of the matches clear. In fact, the whole story is told from the outside, as it were—as if chess were such an abstruse pastime that it would be too much to ask viewers to know even the pieces on the board, let alone how they move. So we’re treated to accounts of what’s happening comparable to what a radio announcer might have to say about a football game. Even in the famous sixth game against Spassky, what was so amazing about Fischer’s play is declared rather than shown; Lombardy’s amazed smile and Spassky’s decision to resign by actually applauding his foe simply accompany a caption telling us it’s still regarded the greatest match ever played.
Still, within its rather conventional parameters, the film fascinates. The key isn’t the script, which isn’t terribly imaginative (particularly in trying to provide some psychological rationale for Fischer’s eccentricities) or Zwick’s contribution, which frankly is just workmanlike. It’s Maguire’s performance, which captures Fischer’s arrogance and rage while suggesting the fear—and mischievous nastiness—that lay beneath the seething exterior. Schreiber’s smoothness contrasts nicely with Maguire’s rumpled roughness, and without going overboard he catches the Russian’s impatience with his Soviet overseers and his respect for Fischer’s ability—as well as the moment when Spassky finds himself infected with a bit of Fischer’s paranoia too. Sarsgaard expertly channels Lombardy’s combination of admiration and exasperation with his often recalcitrant charge, while Stuhlbarg manages to show Marshall’s desperation over his client’s idiosyncrasies without falling into mere caricature. Production designer Isabelle Guay, art directors Jean-Pierre Paquet and Robert Parle, set designers Jean Gagnon and Veronique Meunier, set decorators Daniel Hamelin, Andre Valade, Frederic Berthiaume and Martine Kazemirchuk and costume designer Renee April only occasionally exaggerate the period detail, as does the array of pop tunes of the time sprinkled into James Newton Howard’s capable but unremarkable score.
In cinematic terms Zwick’s film may not possess the unhinged brilliance of its subject, but Fischer’s story—and Maguire’s committed portrayal of him—carry the day.