Director: Edward Zwick
Duration: 110 minutes
Pawn Sacrifice (DVD) – Movie Review
Bobby Fischer was a genius American chess player, even considered to be the greatest chess player of all time by many. Nonetheless, his determination, as well as the Cold War often drove him to the edge of his sanity. It’s a thin line between genius and madness, something that is made clear quite well by Tobey Maguire as he assumes Fischer’s role in Pawn Sacrifice.
Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is only a young boy when his mother takes him to the great chess player Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), in the early fifties. He had been playing chess at home for quite some time, without losing a single game. He mainly started playing just to occupy himself, as he spent many nights alone in his room. His father nowhere to be seen and his mother being Russian and sympathizing with communism, Bobby’s life wasn’t that easy in these times of the Cold War, but chess became a nice pastime. That time his mother took him to Carmine Nigro he lost, but his potential was already visible and thanks to Nigro’s coaching, he soon became the youngest grand master ever.
Bobby is incredibly obsessed with the game of chess, to the point where he has frequent outbursts and even asks his mother to move out of the house, so he can have his own private place to practice. When he goes to Russia for a championship, he finds out that the Russian grand masters are drawing games in order to isolate him from the championship. Thus he finds it’s impossible for a non-Soviet player to win the competition. He also clearly says so in front of international press, and decides to end his professional career unless the rules are changed to avoid those kinds of situations. Back home in the United States, a government lawyer called Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) contacts him, claiming he will help Fischer to change the tournament rules, free of charge. He succeeds in doing so, thus Bobby goes back to competition. As his second, he selects Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who was once the World Junior Chess Champion, but is now a priest. Lombardy not only serves as a trainer to Bobby, but also as a mental coach, which is a good thing given Bobby’s frequent outbursts. Bobby also starts having more and more demands, going from the amount of money there is to win, to the amount of oranges that are available to him.
Bobby is used to winning once again, which makes him overly confident and frankly, quite arrogant. When he loses to the great Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), it becomes his new obsession to defeat him. All of this, together with the outrageous demands he sets, often at the very last moment, and the feeling that he is constantly spied upon by the Russians, make it quite clear that this genius is getting closer and closer to madness.
When you come to think of it, it’s quite striking that, while the whole film revolves around chess, the rules of the game aren’t explained at all yet the film doesn’t bore. Since the film is more about the player Bobby Fischer and his ups and downs both mentally as well as in competition, rather than on the game itself, it’s also not really necessary to know much about the game, even though it wouldn’t hurt of course. Also the Cold War plays a prominent role in the film, as it influences Fischer in what he does, and also his matches are in a way quite important because they are a sort of battle between the US and the Soviet Union. This adds an extra layer of story value to the film.
Upbeat music often accompanies a change of scenes, which also helps to keep things interesting. It can also be a guideline to know in which year the movie is set in a particular scene, since it does cover quite a few years in Fischer’s career. Nonetheless, those of us who don’t recognize the songs from their youth will still have a fun intermezzo to enjoy.
While the side characters Paul Marshall and Bill Lombardy, played respectively by Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, are certainly well acted, the whole film basically comes down to Tobey McGuire’s acting performance. He is able to show many sides of one and the same character, thus uplifting the whole film.
Only one extra feature was added, where the actors and director talk about Bobby Fischer and what drew them to the character. It’s interesting enough, but after having watched the film itself, this doesn’t really add anything more.
Pawn Sacrifice seems just like a film about the career of the chess legend Bobby Fischer, but the Cold War adds an extra dimension, as all battles between Fischer and the Russian grand masters are not just about winning the game, but also have influence on the relations between the US and the Soviet Union. While Bobby Fischer himself was already quite an interesting person, this time frame makes it ideal to adapt into a movie. Tobey Maguire’s acting is simply top-notch, making this movie well worth your while.