Thursday, September 10, 2015

“Pawn Sacrifice”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Pawn Sacrifice” starring Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber. 


When Bobby Fischer attains his dream of competing against a Russian to prove himself the world’s greatest chess player, will his mental problems interfere with his ability to finish the contest?


As a child, Bobby Fischer (Maguire) was something of a child prodigy, exhibiting remarkable skills as a chess player; in fact, he went on to become the youngest Chess Grandmaster the country had ever seen.  Growing up, Fischer had one desire in mind:  to prove himself to be the world’s best chess player.  In order to do that, however, he knew he would have to do the impossible – beat a Russian chess master.  Since the Russians had long dominated the world in the field of chess, this would prove to be no easy task by any means. 

Soon, Fischer builds himself quite a reputation, both nationally and internationally.  At the Chess Olympiad, he walks out, informing the press that it is his belief that the entire competition is rigged in favor of the Russians and that there is no way for him to win.  Developing notoriety as a lightning rod for attention (much of it negative), he has turned chess into an intellectual professional wrestling match is perceived as the game’s bad boy who gets mercilessly booed at every public appearance.  This manages to work for him just as much as it works against him as he attracts the attention of lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who forces himself on Fischer and offers to represent him professionally in future matches. 

Finally, Fischer gets what he wants and a chess match between himself and Boris Spassky (Schreiber), a Russian who is widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest chess player; a series of 24 games will be played between the two in order to determine who is the best at the game.  But under the stress, Fischer seems to be cracking and his quirky behavior comes out in full force; after losing the first game, he refuses to show up for the second one, causing a forfeiture.  He then makes many unrealistic demands before agreeing to continue in the contest; somehow, Fischer’s demands are met, allowing the match between the two to continue.  But with his erratic behavior becoming exacerbated, will he be able to continue playing – and if he does, will he be able to win?


Question:  What’s more boring than watching two men play 24 games of chess?  Answer:  Watching other people watching two men play 24 games of chess.  The reaction shots by people following these games on television are incredible (and not in a good way, either); they respond as though they’re watching the Super Bowl and had money on the game.  Director Edward Zwick’s stylistic choices here come across more like self-sabotage than good storytelling technique.  He includes some manufactured newsreel footage shots we are apparently supposed to buy as genuine, then tacks on a mini-documentary in the last couple of minutes of the movie.

The distraction of the directing quirks aside, Maguire and Schreiber are excellent in their performances.  Maguire is especially convincing as the rapidly unraveling Fischer who seems to fear success more than failure (talk about acts of self-sabotage!).  In some ways, “Pawn Sacrifice” is reminiscent of “Raging Bull”, but a less violent version; the reason for the comparison is clear:  a famous public figure at the top of his game competes at a high level and the fame causes him to suffer a mental breakdown.  Sadly, the comparison ends there because this movie is nowhere near as good as “Raging Bull”.

Where “Pawn Sacrifice” redeems itself to some degree is the relatively normal relationship Fischer has with his older sister, who is more of a mother to him than his own mother.  As Joan, Lily Rabe tries to conduct something of an intervention with Stuhlbarg’s character when she shows him letters from her brother which express severe paranoia and delusional ideations.  It underscores the true tragedy of the story, which is Fischer’s failure to properly deal with his mental health issues by ignoring them altogether. 

Pawn Sacrifice (2014) on IMDb

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