Pawn Sacrifice

A chess grandmaster who knew all the right moves

As the wonderful Queen of Katwe showed us last year, dramatising two people sitting opposite each other, slowly moving carved wooden pieces around a chequered board, can be a pretty tense affair. Edward Zwick’s film centres its attention on Bobby Fischer, one of the game’s greatest ever players, and a match that is viewed by chess historians as possibly the best of all time. There was a well-received documentary about Fischer released back in 2011 but his unsettled life has never been recreated until now. Since its release in the US two years ago, Pawn Sacrifice has slowly made itself around the world, finally arriving on British shores this week.

Fischer was viewed as something of an eccentric by pretty much everyone he came into contact with and Tobey Maguire does a fantastic job of making his character constantly engaging without overselling his more quirky tendencies. Fischer’s disappearance from the game at the height of his success is well documented and Pawn Sacrifice looks at the period where he became World Champion after a lengthy, legendary match against Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) while being used by the US Government during the Cold War.

A simple game of chess became the battle ground for both sets of Governments, who were keen to strike what they saw as a psychological blow over the other. Fischer’s rise to prominence on the world stage and the showdown with Spassky takes up much of the second half of the film and before that, Zwick patiently manoeuvres his pieces around the board. Not too much time is spent going over Fischer’s childhood, where he was born in Brooklyn and raised in a home that was far from privileged. Before coming into contact with his mentor Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), he was a self-taught prodigy and his aggressively independent approach to the game saw him forge a lonely trail towards success.

The mental health problems that lead to him vanishing from public view, and then arrested for vagrancy in the 80s, become more evident the closer he comes to facing Spassky. Paranoia begins to wrap around his mind, believing, not only, are the Russians out to get him but that he is a victim of a conspiracy constructed by both the chess authorities and even more vaguely “the Jews” (when he did resurface in the 90s he went onto make a number of outrageous comments about the Jewish community. He was also half Jewish himself). Arrogant and stubborn, Fischer is unwilling to bow to anyone else’s will, prepared to play to his rules alone and abandon the game completely if his fluctuating demands are not met.

His journey towards the World Championship is instigated by Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), a lawyer working in cahoots with the US Government, only concerned about Fischers mental state once it threatens to undermine the nations image. Stuhlbarg has made a career out of playing these kind of untrustworthy characters, once again putting in solid performance. William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) completes their small team, a Catholic priest and chess grandmaster who taught Fischer as a boy. Liev Schreiber isn’t given much to do with Spassky but remains a stable presence throughout. But this is very much Maguire’s film and his unpredictable and temperamental nature ensures you can never take your eyes off Fischer.

Zwick mounts a handsome film thanks to the consistently great work of cinematographer Bradford Young. A few tricks are used to place Maguire within some of the archived news footage of the time, where Fischer became something of a public icon during this period. The story is told using broad strokes and it has to be remembered that like every biopic, there will be some contention about the finer details. Wholly accurate or not, Pawn Sacrifice is far more entertaining than its premise may suggest and one thing is for sure, the world of chess will probably never encounter such a fiercely tempestuous character ever again.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Aug 09, 2017

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