By Matthew Balz
I knew almost nothing about Bobby Fischer when walking into Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice (and I knew even less about Boris Spassky or any other figureheads involved in the world of professional chess), but that did not prevent my complete enjoyment of the film. From the very start we are briskly lead through Bobby’s young life and into his adulthood, giving us a brief glimpse into how he rose through the ranks to become the youngest chess grandmaster of his time and how his life became a storm of mental illness and infamy.
In short, the bulk of this film surrounds Bobby Fischer’s pursuit of becoming the greatest chess player in the world, culminating in a historic match between him and Boris Spassky; the champion at the time. Thanks to the crafty editing and imagery, these two men duel on the chess board with intensity as apocalyptic as any blockbuster’s energized climax. The intimate peek into Bobby’s psyche allows us a frenetic vision of the world through his eyes, where the reliable statistics and rules of a chess game are the only welcome consistency.
Hands down, this movie made me want to play chess. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, Pawn Sacrifice sufficiently guides you through the logistics and gameplay, often through fluid dialogue between two characters, all the while making every second tense and enthralling. Matches and moves are discussed like scientific theory, creating a calculated atmosphere which absorbs everyone on screen as well as any audience watching.
Tobey McGuire owns ever moment he’s in frame. Though I would consider his overall career lacking, he pulls off simple facial expressions that alone are responsible for carrying immense emotion and meaning. In portraying a competitive chess player, McGuire is nearly required to wear a mask upon a mask, especially while confronted with opponents who are attempting to read his every twitch. Simply the sight of his eyes staring blankly at a chess board had me curious as to the unhinged thoughts rampaging through Bobby’s head.
One montage in Pawn Sacrifice, wherein young Bobby begins his chess career and effectively dominates all who sit down across from him, allows us to see the ingenious storytelling on display. Archival footage is spliced into the scenes of Bobby sparing with opponent after opponent, revealing the social changes and historical events that take place during those years. This both grounds us in the reality of Bobby’s time period and, in addition, further conveys how his obsession with chess isolates him while the world and all its politics race by unacknowledged.
Despite its intimate depiction of Bobby Fischer’s life, this movie does not focus solely on one character. We also peak into the lives of other key players who coordinate perfectly in Bobby’s shadow, such as Live Schreiber’s portrayal of Boris Spassky and Peter Sarsgaard’s Father Bill Lombardy. As Spassky, Liev Schreiber does not only deal with the threat of Bobby’s gameplay, but also the ever-watching eye of his own government who routinely bugs his hotel rooms, much to Spassky’s displeasure. Sarsgaard’s character is Bobby’s one true friend who single-handedly keep Bobby calm and grounded, often with spontaneous chess games that they play together in their heads, allowing Lombardy to bring reality into Bobby’s plane of existence.
Is a historical depiction of one of the world’s greatest chess players destined to entertain everyone? Probably not, but despite the subject matter and any lack of familiarity with the game, this movie is still a structure of hypnotizing imagery and nail-biting suspense, even when the only movements on screen are from pawn on a chessboard.