Friday, October 2, 2015
Pawn Sacrifice: For Queen, Rook, Self, and Country
The film opens in medias res, after Fischer has forfeited the second game of the Championship (the rules provided for up to 24 total games) and has barricaded himself in his rented cottage, flinching at the slightest sound. It then flashes back to his childhood in New York, a predictable device that immediately illustrates both the benefits and the drawbacks of Zwick's orthodox approach. The flashback, which is mercifully brief, does its job: It bluntly illustrates that Fischer (played as a young boy by Aiden Lovekamp and then as a teen by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is both a genius and a prick. Expressing the former element proves problematic for Zwick; unable to telegraph Fischer's virtuosity visually, he settles for dialogue, with adults repeatedly gushing about the boy's brilliance, followed by a montage of handshakes soundtracked to laudatory notices from newscasters. (To be fair, Zwick initially toys with using graphics to convey Fischer mentally maneuvering pieces on the chessboard, but it's a gimmicky tactic that he wisely abandons.) But he efficiently articulates Fischer's petulance, as when the youth loudly berates his mother without a hint of remorse. This kid has no time for sensitivity—he has chess to play.
Of course, despite its adherence to the strictures of the sports movie, Pawn Sacrifice isn't really about chess at all. That becomes clear once Fischer (now an adult, and played by Tobey Maguire in an electric, wildly entertaining performance) is approached by Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg, great as ever), a self-proclaimed patriot with apparent government influence. There's a Cold War going on, you see, and Marshall has determined that Fischer is just the galvanizing, blue-collar chap the American people need to see succeed. If he can beat the Russians at their own game in the Championship, his victory will inspire the nation. As for concerns about Fischer's mental health? Don't worry, he'll be fine.
A cynic (as well as a fan of obvious metaphors) might argue that Fischer is a pawn in Marshall's grand scheme, a helpless lamb to be fattened up and sacrificed at the altar of American exceptionalism. That is certainly the fear of Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard, pulling an effortless 180 from his jittery turn last week in Black Mass), a chess champ-turned priest who defeated Spassky years ago and whom Fischer selects as his second. (Turns out chess players have seconds. Who knew?) Fischer doesn't like many people—as with Rick Blaine, he would probably despise you if he ever gave you any thought—but he seems to enjoy Lombardy's company, grateful to be in the presence of someone who can properly comprehend his genius. It's a sound choice of companions; if Marshall is the devil sitting on Fischer's shoulder, Lombardy is undoubtedly the angel, watching over his charge with both collegial admiration and paternal anxiety. Yet Marshall consistently prods Fischer forward—during one of Fischer's regular episodes of doubt and frustration, Marshall hands him the phone, and who is on the other end but Henry Kissinger, providing words of encouragement—even as the prodigy's mind begins to fray.
Unfortunately, there remains much of that to play. And despite fine efforts from his cast and crew (Maguire has Fischer wince at every muffled cough from the audience, which the sound design slyly amplifies), Zwick repeatedly bumps up against the limitations of the sports-movie genre, which prove especially constricting in the context of chess. Virtually every scene of match play follows the same regrettable template: Either Fischer or his rival makes a move, followed by a cut to an observer (typically Lombardy or his Russian equivalent) whispering about that move's consequences. That may be how chess is actually played, but it is not the stuff of compelling cinema. The actors do their best to enliven the proceedings—Schreiber's look of puzzlement while trying to decipher the intent behind one of Fischer's moves is more expressive than any line of dialogue—but they cannot surmount the game's inherent tedium. Stretches of Pawn Sacrifice feel less like a movie than a televised sporting event, and a dull one at that. Playing chess can be stimulating, rewarding, and even thrilling; watching other people play it is simply boring.
He is, in essence, mesmerizing, but I can't quite say the same for Pawn Sacrifice. This movie is orderly, sleek, and uncontroversial—everything Bobby Fischer was not. But while it is tempting to envision a more radical encapsulation of this troubled and troubling figure, something bolder and more anarchic, it is unfair to overlook this version's significant pleasures. It may lack imagination, but it offers us the luxury of spending quality time with quality actors, and it ably evokes the unfathomable mania that surrounded an American chess player in a time of national turmoil. In that sense, its successes offset its failures. Let's call it a draw.