Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: Steven Knight
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
by Jon Cvack
I knew some type of master was behind Pawn Sacrifice, and when I saw it was Edward Zwick it all made sense; as this had far too heavy of an expert hand to be created a no name director. The film is much larger than I expected, playing as a highly produced small story with extravagant production design and photography. For any fan of The Search for Bobby Fischer, this is the movie to follow up with, answering many of the questions behind the mystery, all while making Bobby Fischer seem more like a paranoid egomaniac than a recluse genius.
Tobey Maguire takes on Bobby and gives his best performance to date, finally finding a part to break out of his quiet and reserved shell, in which Fischer’s precarious temperance explodes in certain moments. His focus and intensity that was born in The Ice Storm, was perfect in Pleasantville and The Cider House Rules, though never seemed to progress after Wonder Boys. I was surprised to discover that since Spider Man (2001) he’s only been in around a dozen roles and only five in the last seven years. It appears as though he was being typecast as the quiet and shy character, waiting to break out. Pawn Sacrifice is the role he’s been waiting for.
Bobby Fischer was seething with paranoia before he left the chess world forever, convinced that the Russians were planting bugs wherever he went and that the Jews were out to get him. He is portrayed as the quintessential narcissistic genius, unable to connect to anyone without exerting his supreme control. I was excited to see Peter Sarsgaard enter the story, playing William Lombardy, who agrees to accompany Bobby and his lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), as they navigate toward the Big Match against Russian Boris Spassky, played with absolute brilliance by Liev Schreiber, who speaks - what sounds like – authentic Russian.
The film far exceeds its indie vibe when reading the synopsis or seeing the cover. It was so highly produced that I kept wondering how much of this story was cut when I noticed extravagant set pieces used for half a second during transitional montages - they’re at the airport; they’re walking down an ornate staircase; and so on. At moments the story played faster than was necessary and I found myself hoping it would slow down, even if the running time would push two hours. In the end you’re left wondering how much was left on the cutting room floor. It seemed like far too much time was spent trying to focus on the juiciest moments of Bobby’s paranoia, as he’s flipping his room around, scolding his closest friends, and determined to get everything he wants. I was left wanting to see the redemptive qualities, whatever they were; especially come the conclusion when we discover that Bobby nearly fell off the face of the Earth, returning to the Soviet Union years later against U.S. orders, all to battle Spassky once again, then subject to arrest, finding asylum in Iceland before dying in 2008. When you see the bearded old man years before he would pass, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing; that the film was far too focused on his negative side rather than trying to sympathize with his mental disorder and struggle to discover the best way to win. As Lombardy mentions, there are literally billions of moves to consider and it’s no wonder the best players are all a little off as they’re constantly devising strategies and moves. The story was a bit too judgmental at times, focused far too much on how others perceived him rather than how he might regard himself and actions; as though they figured it’d be more entertaining to show the extremity of his narcissism than any amount of redemptive qualities.
Still, for a film about chess, Zwick is able to amp up the stakes. In one moment, after Bobby quits the tournament, the lawyer begs him to get over his extreme paranoia, explaining that this is far more about his own ego than soldiers getting killed in a war against communism. Whatever your politics are, Zwick allows us to understand the Bobby’s historical symbolism. In a game that embodies strategy and intellect, it’s no wonder that President Nixon would call Bobby three times after he refused to continue the tournament. The whole world was watching.
BELOW: I'm not sure how good the accent is, but the fact Liev Schreiber learned Russian is incredible
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