When we think of moments of competition that have captivated the attention of the American public, international chess competitions rarely come to mind. But for a brief period in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bobby Fischer actually did capture the attention of the nation for his remarkable skills at chess. But Fischer’s time in the spotlight was brief. The chess prodigy was laid waste by forms of mental illness, paranoid delusions which gave way to a rabid form of anti-Semitism. With Pawn Sacrifice, veteran director Edward Zwick examines the rise and fall of Bobby Fischer in that brief period where he was a national icon, fighting the Cold War on a chess board against his Russian rival Boris Spassky. It’s a modest film that is mostly engaging with only a few rough spots here and there.
The film opens by showing a young Fischer’s formative years living with his mother (Robin Weigert) and sister in Brooklyn. These scenes highlight both Fischer’s brilliance and troubles. Then we see a grown Bobby Fischer, played by Tobey Maguire, rising the ranks of chess fame in the early ‘60s. A brilliant mind able detect patterns and strategies, Fischer soon realizes that the organizing body of a chess tournament have rigged the tourney so that none of the Soviet Union’s chess players would face Fischer. He raises his voice upon walking out the tournament, and later publishes an article in Sports Illustrated condemning the accused collusion. That article catches the eye of Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), an attorney who’s helped the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix and wants to help Fischer take on the Russian chess masters as another front in the Cold War. In order to keep the temperamental and paranoid Fischer under wraps, Marshall enlists the help of Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a chess grandmaster who taught a young Fischer. But Fischer’s delusions and paranoia undermine him at every chance, even when he’s preparing to take on Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the reigning world champion.
Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t play by the rules of the typical biopic, where the uncomfortable history of its subject is glossed over in favor of happy ending. Director Edward Zwick and screenwriters Steven Knight, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson don’t shirk at portraying the anti-Semitism that would come to define Fischer’s later life, nor do they grant absolution to those that ignored Fischer’s issues to use him as another tool in the fight against communism. The title and the film suggests that Fischer was sacrificed in order to obtain a moral victory over the Soviet Union, though the film does also suggest that Fischer would’ve likely rejected any attempt to provide him help. Pawn Sacrifice also draws a fascinating parallel between Fischer and his Soviet counterpart in Boris Spassky, with Fischer’s mostly imagined paranoia contrasted by the oppressive and very real surveillance of the Soviet state.
What’s interesting is how the film is able to effectively mine Fischer’s declining mental state for tension. Tight shots from cinematographer Bradford Young and quick cuts from editor Steven Rosenblum create these moments of painstaking intensity. That intensity doesn’t translate into the actual chess matches, which operate without strongly conveying the brilliance we’re supposedly witnessing. It’s a tricky feat to pull off, and winds up being one of the few weak spots in the film. In other areas, Zwick sometimes undermines his film with an overemphasis on news footage, old and recreated, which is to highlight the larger cultural effect of Fischer’s chess brilliance, but these moments lose their effectiveness through repetition. There are also a handful of historical inaccuracies, as if the film sometimes looks too far ahead in history as opposed to when certain scenes take place, but these are relatively minor flaws.
For everything all that works in Pawn Sacrifice, the film is anchored by some wonderful performances. Tobey Maguire gives one of the best performances of his career. He’s able to craft an interesting character through alternating between abrasive moments of extreme delusions and paranoia and moments of subtlety, where a slight movement is as effective as an impassioned speech. It certainly doesn’t hurt Maguire’s performance that he’s surrounded by great supporting actors. Peter Sarsgaard brings a subdued empathy and intelligence to Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg continues to prove that he’s likely the most underappreciated actor working today. As Bobby’s sister Joan, Lily Rabe shines in her limited screen time.
Pawn Sacrifice is a smart, engaging piece of cinema that is boosted by its strong performances from its cast. It may not rank among the absolute best of the year, but is able to explore the political realities of the era in which it’s set and the deteriorating mental state of its subject. Pawn Sacrifice works because it understands that even in the moments of Bobby Fischer’s triumph there’s the tragedy of a brilliant mind laid waste by hate and paranoia. And despite what Fischer himself might’ve said, the Jews aren’t to blame for his inherent tragedy.