The spirit of chess legend and full-tilt head case Bobby Fischer has loomed over at least a couple of excellent films, including Steve Zaillian’s 1993 drama Searching for Bobby Fischer and the 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World.
Forty-three years after his history-making triumph at the World Chess Championship of 1972, though, Fischer has yet to receive the biopic treatment. At first glance, his is the kind of story that easily lends itself to a gauzy Hollywood distillation: Fischer was a Brooklyn-raised high-school dropout who went on to defeat the world’s greatest chess players, becoming the first American world chess champion of the 20th century (and only the third in history).
But the biggest deterrent to making a Fischer biopic has probably always been Fischer himself. His genius on the chessboard was undeniable, but he was so consumed by paranoia and misanthropic rage that he once used his airtime on a Philippine radio show to express his delight at the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Pawn Sacrifice, the new movie from Glory director Edward Zwick, edges closer to biopic territory than any dramatized account of Fischer’s life so far, but its focus is squarely—and perhaps wisely—centered on the classic 1972 match in Reykjavík that pitted him against Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (played by an icy Liev Schreiber, who steals large swaths of the movie).
The task of bringing Fischer to life falls to Tobey Maguire, who at first seems ill-suited to play the lanky, lupine prodigy. Maguire, who was instrumental in getting the film made, mostly rises to the challenge, only occasionally getting too caught up in Fischer’s twitchy idiosyncrasies and Brooklyn accent.
Pawn Sacrifice picks up the story mid-meltdown, in 1972, with Fischer tearing apart his Iceland lodgings in a search for the listening devices he imagines to be planted in the furnishings. From there, we flash back to Fischer’s troubled boyhood—it’s suggested that his mental illness is rooted in mommy issues—and his tumultuous rise through the ranks of high-level chess competition.
The movie only skims over these fascinating stretches in its hurry to get where it’s really going: the emblematic face-off between the American Fischer and the Soviet Spassky in a match that catapulted chess, however briefly, to the frontlines of pop culture.
Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight take great pains to frame the story not only against the backdrop of the Cold War but as a battlefield of the war itself, making it clear that, as far as the two countries are concerned, there’s far more at stake than a chess title. The film gains considerable momentum as it narrows its focus and closes in on the 1972 tournament, with Fischer growing more unpredictable and unstable with each successive triumph. By the time the big match arrives, Fischer is by turns insufferably arrogant and cripplingly paranoid, and even Spassky begins to lose his iceberg composure.
Pawn Sacrifice’s true forerunners, then, aren’t movies that deal with the legacy of Bobby Fischer, or even movies about chess. Its real DNA comes from stories about geniuses who are ultimately undone by their own minds. It borrows major beats from both
A Beautiful Mind and The Aviator, so it feels very familiar at times. The pacing is measured and unhurried, and Zwick’s direction is deliberate and mostly precise, though he clutters up key sequences with choppy editing and distracting sound design in an attempt to convey Fischer’s mental deterioration. Those gimmicks only siphon away some of the tension that has been so carefully built—oddly enough, two guys staring at a chessboard can be remarkably nerve-racking and cinematic, and there are moments of Pawn Sacrifice that absolutely crackle. It’s also bolstered by some standout performances; besides Schreiber and Maguire, there are great turns by Peter Sarsgaard as Fischer’s coach and confidant and Michael Stuhlbarg as his politically motivated attorney.
In the end, Pawn Sacrifice succeeds not so much as a movie about chess but as a movie about the Cold War, and about the ugly fallout of ideological warfare. Consider it a dark counterpoint to the similarly themed but altogether more upbeat Miracle, another movie about a game that took on tremendous symbolic significance in the long and murky wake of the Red Scare. Pawn Sacrifice skims over the more troubling aspects of Fischer’s life, but it’s clear on at least one point: that the people and entities who benefit from an ideological victory are rarely the ones who actually do the dirty work of winning it.
April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
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