Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tobey McQuire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard
By: Jacob J. Mouradian
No two chess games are ever alike; the same doesn’t hold true for biopics.
Pawn Sacrifice is the tale of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, played by Tobey Maguire, from his early days in the game to representing the United States in the 1972 World Chess Championship. As Fischer progresses through the ranks of international chessdom he closes himself off from the world, becoming more erratic in his strives toward perfection while simultaneously becoming a superstar in his own right. He distances himself from the only people who still socialize with him, from his bustling agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) to his quiet and reserved chess coaches (Conrad Pla and Peter Sarsgaard), and his worried sister, Joan (Lily Rabe). All of his eccentricities and shaky support comes to a head in Iceland as he faces off against the then-grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), determined that he represents not only his own honor but that of America at-large in the ever-looming Cold War.
The film is about the drama that lies within scrutinized mental calculations. Similar to 2011’s Moneyball, a sports drama which made watching behind-the-scenes management more exciting than the sport’s action, Pawn Sacrifice is another great showcase proving mental stimulation to be just as riveting–as well as extraneous–as any physical counterpart. Director Edward Zwick captures the analytical nature of the game by playing each move like a tactical strike.
Maguire plays Fischer as if he’s trapped in a constricting outfit as he perspires and claws at himself, demanding ultimate concentration and the utmost perfection to the point of breakdown. Even his compatriots exhibit this mental duress: Stuhlbarg’s agent character Paul Marshall shakes with hidden anger at Fischer’s ludcriousness yet trembles at the fear of his rejection and loss of importance; Sarsgaard’s Father Lombardy (in one of the actor’s best performances) emits a sense of inner conflict over his growing intolerance of Fischer versus his respect of chess itself.
Yet for being about a man with an unpredictable strategy, Pawn Sacrifice’s moves are visible from a few turns away. The film plays on two of American cinema’s favorite narratives–Cold War tensions and the Troubled (Male) Genius–and unfortunately never pushes either of them past the realms of slight amusement. While from the surface it successfully invokes the inflated severity of the Red Scare years (the fact that a basic board game is being turned into an ideological battleground) and the seething paranoia that it can instill in individuals, it never really delves deeper than that surface scratch. Perhaps this is meant to parallel Fischer’s own mental state–feeding his ego by blowing things out of proportion–and that any rational means of paranoia that exist are only being perpetrated–and felt–by Fischer himself.
But by tying it into the worn archetype of the tortured eccentric, said paranoia loses its potency. Whether there’s not enough information in the source material or the filmmakers chose to leave it out, Fischer’s emotional extremes are never fully analyzed nor absolutely explained. Without that further introspection yet lack of ambiguous ethos, Maguire’s Fischer morphs into that alienating anti-hero that’s hard to root for: occasionally amusing, but mostly off-putting, irritating, and generally cold. It doesn’t help that the film glazes over his final years, either, as such an ending would have felt more conclusive and less rushed.
Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t go as deep as it could, yet it still manages to embed some worthy thrills and entertaining moments into its standard structure. Just like chess, even a game with a common opening move can still amount to a worthwhile time.