Pawn Sacrifice: Two-Dimensional Chess, by Tyler Smith
Edward Zwick is a big picture filmmaker. He makes movies with broad themes and maybe even broader characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It almost invariably gives his actors enough room to really explore the limits and motivations of their characters. And broad themes can often elicit big reactions from the audience. There are seldom any small feelings in an Edward Zwick film. Everything tends to get boiled down its most basic, uncomplicated form. Pawn Sacrifice, Zwick’s film about chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, is no exception.
Wisely choosing to focus on Fischer’s legendary chess battle with Russian champion Boris Spassky, Zwick attempts to understand what drove Fischer at what was arguably the most important moment of his life. This specificity is always welcomed, as we aren’t forced to try to capture an entire life in a couple of hours, but instead treat a specific season as the subject’s life in microcosm. One of the best examples of this is Bennett Miller’s Capote, which used the eccentric author’s writing of In Cold Blood as a way to sum up his general approach to life.
But Pawn Sacrifice is no Capote, because Zwick likes to keep things simple. Rather than genuinely try to find out what made Bobby Fischer tick, which would undoubtedly require asking more questions than could possibly be answered, Zwick latches on to the two things that we know to be absolutely true about the man.
- He was brilliant at chess
- He was crazy
Everything in the film works to underline one of these points. We see Bobby alone in his room and his behavior either enforces our knowledge that he is a genius, or that he’s slowly going insane. When other characters talk about him, they’re either marveling at his abilities, or lamenting his mental state.
Two points. Over and over. The end.
This is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of good stuff here, particularly the acting. I may not respond to Edward Zwick as a storyteller, but he seems to understand how best to work with actors. As Fischer, Tobey Maguire at first seems a bit out of his depth, but soon is able to make us believe that he is a man for whom chess is the only thing in the world that makes sense. Maguire plays the often-unpleasant Fischer as generally afraid of the uncertainty of the world around him and is desperate to find order where there is none. Maguire has been largely sidelined by Hollywood since he ended his tenure as Spider-Man and his performance in Pawn Sacrifice helps us to realize how sad that is.
As good as Maguire is, the supporting players might fare even better. As Spassky, Liev Schreiber is the height of stability. He is everything that Fisher is not. He is cold and collected. Schreiber plays him as a shark, whose laser-like focus enables him to shut out all distractions but the chess board. All that sounds fairly standard in an antagonist, but Schreiber imbues Spassky with more than a little humanity. He sees Fischer not only as an opponent, but as a kindred spirit. Few other people can know what it’s like to be considered the best in the world at something, and Schreiber plays up an inner sadness at the sight of Fischer’s unravelling, seeming to understand that a similar fate could befall him if he isn’t careful.
Also standing out is Peter Sarsgaard, whose un-self conscious on-screen intensity is always a welcome sight. As Bill Lombardy, a former competitive chess player turned priest, Sarsgaard becomes the much-needed emotional anchor of the film. Lombardy is tapped to assist Fisher in training for the match and finds that this will require much more than simple chess playing; he will have to utilize his priestly skills of dealing with broken people. Sarsgaard exudes intelligence and sympathy as Lombardy and watching him navigate the waters of Fischer’s insanity is a pleasure. We feel like we’re in good hands.
Technically, the biggest pleasure of the film is the staging and shooting of the chess matches themselves. The quick cutting and extreme close-ups feel like something out of a boxing movie, or perhaps even a war film. Rather than try to capture the clinical tone of an actual chess match, Zwick chooses to put us inside Fisher’s brain, which is flooded with panic, distraction, hyper awareness, and, yes, brilliance. These sequences are exhilarating, as they should be. Chess was life or death for Bobby Fischer, and it feels like it to us.
But, in the end, Pawn Sacrifice winds up being a fairly unremarkable film. We don’t come away feeling like we know Bobby Fischer any better than we did when we entered. We haven’t learned anything or even really been engaged by the character’s plight. Instead, it feels more like a re-creation than an actual film; simple, straightforward, and ultimately unmemorable.