What isn’t to love about a good Chess biopic. Having seen a documentary about the divisive genius of Bobby Fischer, a dramatic adaptation of his life with the acting chops of emo Spiderman Tobey Maguire and Ray Donovan, Liev Schreiber. Edward Zwick comes back to the director’s chair after a 5 year gap since the misunderstood Love And Other Drugs but once again fails to put a convincing stamp on what could be a deep tale of competition and mental illness.
Bobby Fischer was an American chess master, a man who rose the ranks of the US scene while the Russians dominated the competition. Used as a pawn (yes its a pun) in cold war politics, the increasingly erratic Fischer took on Boris Spassky in a series of matches to determine the world champion. We are given this real life story in flashes as we skate through the years pinpointing some of the major events of Fischer’s life, but nothing is dealt with in depth, even the 21 games that made up the 1972 World Championship seem like an afterthought when they should be pivotal.
I love Chess, it is psychological warfare and is perfect for a dramatic recreation, especially the feud of Fischer and Spassky that gripped the world in the 70’s. Pawn Sacrifice captures some of the feeling and plays the drama and tension well, it also focuses on Fischer's mental state and the challenge of his handler, Bill Lombardy to manage him. Knowing of Fischer’s history it is intriguing to see the mental interplay with the historical so closely and Maguire and Sarsgaard (Lombardy) are both gripping in their performances.
There is a lack of focus in Pawn Sacrifice. It is a movie about chess and plays on metaphors of control, espionage and trust, but in the end I feel like I watched a film about mental illness mixed with Rocky IV. Fischer is often painted as being sick, deluded and egotistical, his massive intellect is sidelined, the man instead reduced to a petulant child. This criticism would be more objective than anything if it didn’t hurt the flow and focus of the film. Every time we are given a scene of Fischer breaking down or closing up there is a loss of tension in the competition at play. We are given elements of family life and politics yet much of the actual matchplay is skated over, especially later games where no shenanigans took place.
As the Russians arrive for a tournament in California, they all walk to the beach decked out in full suits. A visual joke as much as it is a metaphor for Cold War differences, approach and fear. What is perhaps most unfortunate is that the scene stands out so clearly in a movie with no other peaks.
When I want to be reminded of Bobby Fischer again, I will revert back to the documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World from 2011. Pawn Sacrifice gets bogged down in wanting to be a physiological analysis more than it wants to be a sports movie, I believe there is the ability for it to be both but the balance here is wrong.