Chess has never been more compelling cinematically than in PAWN SACRIFICE. Whether you know nothing about the game, or you are a grand master, the story of Bobby Fischer’s rise to the world championship, and the toll it took on his already fragile psyche, has all the suspense and intrigue of an espionage thriller. That story mirrors and is framed by the Cold War, with the upstart kid from Brooklyn challenging the acknowledged masters of the game, the Soviet Union.
That chess in general, and the match between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the Soviet Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber) in particular turned chess into a pop phenomenon was in no small part due to the force of Fischer’s personality, and it is this hinge on which the film turns. Unlike the bookish introverts who dominated the game until then, Fischer talked trash, complained loudly, and otherwise played by his own set of rules when it came to dealing with the press and his opponents real and perceived. Not, it should be noted, unlike the way he played chess. There was such poetry, such genius that, we are assured, grand masters would weep over the beauty of his games. With so much publicity, and a new obsession with chess on the part of the general public, the stakes on the outcome of the match between Fischer and Spassky became that much higher from a public relations and political point of view.
It’s an angle played up by Fischer’s manager, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who rescued Fischer from obscurity after a post-match meltdown early in the chess player’s career. His motives for making Fisher the eponymous pawn are honorably patriotic, cynically political, and not so incidentally lucrative. The motives of Fischer’s chess second, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) are less divided. The priest loves his country, but the sheer brilliance of Fischer’s game is what motivates him, even as it also stops him from allowing even Fischer’s semi-estranged sister, Joan (Lily Rabe) from getting Fischer the psychiatric attention he so desperately needs. As Lombardy puts it, it would be like pouring cement into a holy well.
The plan is to manage the unmanageable Fischer, acquiescing to the assorted quirks, including a penchant for taking apart phones to find the listening devices, humoring the paranoia that is not entirely unjustified, and otherwise shielding Fischer from reality. Not that reality stands much of a chance. Using an immersive approach, the film shows how the abstraction of the chess board, and Fischer’s obsessive playing of the game 18 hours a day, becomes the reality for him, while everything else becomes less and less real. Maguire is the perfect blend of wary brashness, overweening hubris, and pugnacious impatience compensating for his introverted personality and deep-seated emotional issues. As all good films do, PAWN SACRIFICE shows rather than tells, with fleeting glances at a mother more interested in revolution than nurturing, and the constant government surveillance that followed Fisher in childhood leading to his inevitable distrust of authority and desire for the same absolute control in his life that he has on the chess board. The outbursts, the demands, the increasingly bizarre series of fixations become almost reasonable.
When Spassky rolls up to the Beverly Hilton in a big black limousine, Fisherdemanding more than a fleabag motel as the price of representing his country’s honor makes perfect sense. Is there really a tell-tale clicking from the phone that bespeaks a bug? We hear what Fischer hears, not what is real, and are left to draw our own conclusions. We also see the world from Fischer’s point of view, hence when he first meets Spassky, the Russian walks into focus with a strong back light creating a halo effect, overwhelming, frightening, and the irresistible Holy Grail rolled into one.
We also get a piquant contrast between the two men themselves, perhaps the only two people in the world who can truly understand what the other is going through. There is in Fisher an almost childlike innocence, even in the throes of his paranoia about surveillance that may or may not be unfounded, the neuroses and the insolence find an unexpected resonance in the Russian’s cool, cynical assurance that he is always being spied upon, and that this is the price of being his government’s prize show pony, trotted out as a public relations gambit. Resistance may be futile, but finding an outlet in tiny acts of defiance with decadent rock and roll played at full blast, or sneaking out to play pinball are perpetrated.
This is a careful film. By the time we get to the historic sixth game, the groundwork has been laid for us to appreciate the nuance, and the boldness, of Fischer’s strategy, a strategy that leaves everyone gasping. We also have Lombardy’s helpful narration for the implication of each move coupled with cinematography of the board and the players that takes its idiom from the best visual tension that Hitchcock had to offer.
PAWN SACRIFICE is an endlessly fascinating study of the price of genius. More, Maguire’s audacious and illuminating performance humanizes the difficult, sometimes reprehensible, person that Bobby Fischer eventually became with more compassion than the man ever received from the world.