International chess champion Bobby Fischer was as enigmatic as the game he played, which makes him a figure well suited to a screen drama. And yet it is only now—seven years after his death, and a year after the film’s festival premiere—that we get a major motion picture about the man who may have been the greatest chess player of all time. Pawn Sacrifice casts Tobey Maguire as Fischer in a Cold War drama that builds to his most famous match.
As scripted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Pawn Sacrifice establishes Fischer’s bona fides as a boy chess prodigy (Aiden Lovekamp and, later, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) growing up in the fifties with no knowledge of his father and under the wing of a mother (Robin Weigert) bemused by his gift. Though a U.S. citizen, Regina Fischer had lived in Russia for years, and while hosting a Brooklyn house party of left-wing friends, she attempts to explain to her son that they represent threatening "revolution" to some, including "bad men" (that is, G-Men) surveilling them. Maguire takes over the leading role in 1962, when the still teenage Fischer (already a multiple record-breaker) competed in the 15th Chess Olympiad in Bulgaria.
Maguire isn’t obvious casting, but he convincingly owns the role of the incredibly difficult, mentally unstable grandmaster. The actor pairs an oft-fevered, disheveled aspect with the fierce impatience and unwillingness to suffer fools that attend genius. Playing and replaying games in his mind, Fischer both seems at home in a championship culture of aggressive arrogance and mentally tortured by the game’s maddening strategic variables. As his advisor and sparring partner Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) puts it, "This game--it's a rabbit hole...it can take you very close to the edge."
That’s never truer than in the high-stakes atmosphere surrounding Fischer’s 1972 match-up with Russian grandmaster and World Champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Iceland. Described in the film as "World War III on a chessboard" and "The chess version of a fifteen-round prize fight," the World Championship comprised 24 games, but the competition didn’t remain bound to the chessboard’s 64 squares. Rather, it took on patriotic significance, with Fischer America’s symbolic hope to disprove "Soviet intellectual superiority over the decadent West.”
Director Edward Zwick (Glory) doesn’t get in the way of a good story, and gets typically fine work from Schreiber (in a nearly wordless performance), as well as Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg as Fischer’s manager/lawyer Paul Marshall. Some of the film’s smartest scenes find Lombardy and Marshall troubleshooting their “rock star” charge, as when the former argues to the latter that giving Fischer drugs treat his paranoia and delusional psychosis “would be like pouring concrete down a holy well."
The at-times shallow Pawn Sacrifice flirts with simplifying its story to a nationalistic triumph of patriotism and education, but the diseased mind of its antihero and his ignominious end lend the film an appropriately haunting ellipses. "Course, in the end,” Fischer muses, “there's no place to go," on the chessboard or, he implies, in existence.