Engaging without being especially insightful or compelling, Patrick Creadon’s technically unimpressive documentary about the makers and consumers of crossword puzzles, especially the ones published in the New York Times, lacks the sense of unbounded joy found in a picture like “Spellbound” (partially because it involves adults rather than youngsters). But it’s pleasant enough to get a mild pass.
The linchpin of things, though hardly the most prominent figure in the final footage, is Will Shortz, who’s not only the editor of the Times puzzle but the founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held regularly at a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. He’s portrayed as the upholder of a tradition of challenge and excellence established by his predecessors at the paper and the nucleus of a world of puzzle fashioners, among whom Merl Reagle is introduced as an exemplar. Addicts are introduced from a variety of fields. Among those who enthuse about working the brain-teasers are Jon Stewart (predictably voluble), Ken Burns (characteristically subdued), the Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina (who gets his other New York Yankee teammates involved), and Bill Clinton (who compares solving the puzzles with the decision-making process he followed in the White House) and Bob Dole (with whom Clinton shares a nice anecdote about how cleverly the Times puzzlers handled the 1996 election).
The real stars, though, are the master players who are introduced as serious contestants in the national tournament. There’s Ellen Ripstein, a mousy type despite a “hobby” of baton twirling, who gained fame by winning an earlier championship; Trip Payne, another former champ whose life with his significant other in Florida is also sketched; Al Sanders, a family man who seems destined always to finish slightly behind the winner; and Tyler Hinman, a college boy whose long fascination with word games has made him a virtual prodigy in the field. (Others complete the puzzles using pencil or, for the truly dedicated, pen; he uses a computer keyboard.) They’re all engaging personalities, and when they come together in Stamford the competition–though not always ideally clear in the details–generates some real excitement, simply because you’ve gotten emotionally interested in these cerebral, but still genuine, folk. (There’s an especially satisfying moment when several competitors approach the judges about what they think is a scoring error, even though correcting it might hurt some of them. Sports mega-stars could take a lesson from these guys.) And when the final round, pitting three of them in one last puzzle, comes around, it makes for as satisfying a close as any Hollywood scriptwriter might have concocted.
From a technical perspective “Wordplay” is pretty rudimentary–a compilation of straightforward interview footage, nice but sometimes very homely background material, and on-the-fly clips from the Stamford competition–but the substance is far more important than appearances in this case. Though modest in execution, the film is a solid celebration of brains in contrast to our culture’s usual tendency to lionize brawn.