Eight years after his death, Bobby Fischer continues to fascinate people. He was the most unlikely of weapons in a war between super powers, a deeply disturbed individual, and a prodigy the likes of which comes alone perhaps every hundred years. There are a number of good biographies about the chess genius and there have been several films, but none has really captured Fischer and no actor has given a definitive portrayal of one of the 20th century’s most complex minds. Edward Zwick, who has directed some of my favorite films (Glory, Legends of the Fall), takes a stab at encapsulating Fischer’s life in Pawn Sacrifice.
Pawn Sacrifice uses as its throughline, the famous 1972 chess match between Fischer and USSR Grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber). It starts with Fischer’s refusal to show up at the second game of the 24-game series because his list of demands wasn’t met (it’s an interesting list), then flashes back to Bobby’s childhood before eventually meeting back up with the showdown with Spassky in Iceland. During the Cold War, sports were often a bloodless battleground between the US and USSR (they certainly made the Olympics must-see TV), and that the US had produced this prodigy who was beating Russian grandmasters in a game they considered theirs was a huge political football.
There is a great Bobby Fischer biopic waiting to be made, but unfortunately, Pawn Sacrifice isn’t it. The two main problems are the script and Fischer’s casting. Chess isn’t a riveting spectator sport. Making a movie about chess that’s compelling is extremely difficult and Fischer is your best bet because of his mental illness, erratic personality and sheer brilliance. However, you still have to make all that translate in a way that grips the viewer and there are just large stretches of the film that are dull. The other problem is Tobey Maguire. I have never been a fan of Maguire’s. I think he’s an extremely wooden and limited actor and his attempts to mine Fischer’s demons come off pale in comparison to similar roles, say Russell Crowe’s masterful performance as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
The highlight of the film, and a great piece of casting, is Schrieber as Spassky, who is criminally underused. He only has a few scenes in the film by himself and they’re fantastic. I think the film would’ve been much better structured around the Fischer/Spassky dichotomy and giving Schrieber more to do than trying to encompass Fischer’s madness, his entire life, and the geopolitical ramifications of the 1972 match. Zwick is an extremely underrated director, and this isn’t a poor movie, but it isn’t what it could be given the wealth of material with which he had to work. A stronger lead as Fischer and a better structured script could have made this another 2015 gem. As is, it’s a decent rental.