By Anthony Binas
There are no secret factors in chess, no probability of a dice or a need for lightning reflexes. Chess is the strategy game, where only the best moves will determine if you are good, or if you are god. The ultimate games of wits.
I’ve been silently anticipating Pawn Sacrifice since late last year, with my growing fascination of the game along with its only American-born world champion, Bobby Fischer. Fischer himself is almost mythical in the world of chess, holding the very rare accolade of becoming a legend in his own time. Fischer was most famous for dominating his contemporaries in a way that has yet to be replicated, and equally infamous for refusing to defend his world title and becoming a recluse. Despite the lack of advertising, this biographical film of the American champion was a must see in my eyes.
Pawn Sacrifice is set during the Cold War, where the feverish counterculture began to bloom and fear of a communist takeover (collectively known as the Red Scare) induced paranoia throughout the nation. The plot spends most of its time following Bobby Fischer’s rise from arrogant prodigy to sociopathic genius, and his adversity against the Soviet chess-machine. The film climaxes with the World Chess Championship of 1972, where Fischer played against defending champion Boris Spassky. The film makes heavy highlights on the political-nature of Fischer’s reign, along with his increasingly unstable grip on reality.
The titular character is played by Tobey Maguire, known mostly for his role as Spiderman. I believe Maguire does a fine job as the chess champion on the brink of madness. Boris Spassky is played by Liev Schreiber, whose quiet and controlled demeanor contrasts nicely with Fischer’s eccentric nature. Schreiber also does a fine job with mirroring Fischer’s position as a pawn to their respective nations. Fischer’s coach, William James Lombardy, is played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is a clear standout in the film; he plays a good foil to Maguire’s Fischer, and he is pretty funny in a mostly serious film.
I found Pawn Sacrifice enjoyable because it isn’t a feel-good film. There is no triumphant end where the protagonist wins respect, and gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. This film is about a tortured soul, whose entire life was spent obtaining the grandest title possible, only when he achieved it—there was no where else left to go. But what I loved most was that Fischer was indeed portrayed as a mad genius, but a mad genius without romanticizing mental illness. This is a film that a Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison biopic deserves, not glorifying misery or claiming that there’s beauty in depression and paranoia. Pawn Sacrifice shows the true monotone colors of madness and spits on the notion that it is a gateway to spiritual fulfillment and artistic expression.
Pawn Sacrifice is the tale of a man who, with all his heart, believed that there was nowhere left to go. The tale of a man who wanted to win so badly that he did everything in his power to prevent it. The tale of a man who realized his dream of reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, only to realize it was cold and lonely on top.
Chances are, people who watched or will watch Pawn Sacrifice did so because they wanted to see Bobby Fischer. They knew the accolades that preceded him and the way he played is the stuff of legend. They knew that at his best, Fischer was perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. But, what they don’t know was why did Fischer fall? He had so much promise, but threw it away on a whim. For a game as logical as chess, Fischer was most illogical. Pawn Sacrifice’s audience wishes to find an answer.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who wants to see a comedy, action film or a feel-good movie. Honestly, if you don’t know who Bobby Fischer was, you should just steer clear away from this film.
This film is no Fight Club, but it’s an enjoyable psychological ride to those who want to see/understand Bobby Fischer in a biopic setting. Good film, but not exceedingly great.
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.