Toppling the Fischer-King
"No, He's Worried About What's Going to Happen if He Wins"
Chess is a game, but it is a tough one, not child's play. As one character (Peter Saarsgard's Father Bill Lombardy) describes it in Pawn Sacrifice, it's a "rabbit-hole." Get good enough to get out of the "potzer" stage and pretty soon you're studying it and that comprises zillions of moves and zillions of games, and, like most drama, "there's nothing new under the sun." It comes down to knowledge and making the right move and anticipating the next few moves of your opponent with history as your guide.
But that's if you're playing "by the book."
That's if you're playing to win—and there's no reason to play chess if the only thing you want to do is move pieces around a board for fun. You approach the game with one goal in mind and it is not to lose. Chess is a mano-a-mano cage-match to the death. It is not a game of enjoyment or social interaction. It ain't "Twister." To play chess is to want to win. Absolutely. It's binary. Win or lose. And the twisting scenarios are a guide and a complication to that one singular goal: win. Don't be a loser.
You have to have a tinge of the megalomaniac to play chess. And the fiefdom that you want to claim is 20 inches by 20 inches, barely enough to contain the smallest of egos. It is not a game for the indifferent. It is not a game for those who see it as merely a game. It demands a cold, calculating killer instinct that plays "all-in."
As such, the recreation informs the player, to the point where it becomes a question whether the participant is playing the game or the game is playing them.
So...Bobby Fischer. The script of Pawn Sacrifice had been on the legendary "Black List" of unproduced scripts since 2009, and like most of those, they're really good scripts that are judged "unmarketable"—in other words, "no superheroes." How do you make a compelling movie...about chess?
You make it about when the entire world was gripped in the biggest chess-match on Earth between Fischer and Russia's Boris Spaasky in 1972. World leaders were watching this match, and everyday citizens, too. At the time, Fischer was on more magazine covers than in Kate Upton's dreams (including Sports Illustrated), and for an obsessive-compulsive with an out-sized ego and the aggressiveness of a pit-bull, all this attention caused a crack in that precise, disciplined mind.
Which wasn't that disciplined in the first place. Chess is what focused a troubled kid with a family life in chaos. It became his refuge, became his weapon, the place he'd rather be than home with a Mom and a revolving door of "dad's," checkmating kings being the alternative to punching older men in the face—having control.
And control is relative. It's one thing to control a chessboard. You might even delude yourself into thinking you control the player on the other side. But, that's it. And for Bobby Fischer, it's a hard lesson of how much control his mastery of chess ultimately gave him. It got him money, fame, notoriety, maybe a legacy of sorts. But, never control.
After a brief look at Fischer's childhood (where he's played by Aiden Lovekamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), we see the eccentric adult Fischer (a dynamite performance by Tobey Maguire, who looks like he didn't sleep throughout the entire production), rising through the ranks. He is approached by an agent Paul Marshall (Mark Stuhlbarg), who is a chess fan and a self-described "hopeless" patriot, who wants to see an American loosen the stranglehold the Russians have on the World Chess Championship. He has investors who might be able to fund Fischer's attempt. The Russians, after all, support Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), with bodyguards, drivers, official cars and nice hotel digs. Fischer's entourage is a "minder" and fellow chess advocate Father Lombardy (Saarsgard) (he'd played Fischer in 1965; "We were young. He'd destroy me now.") who, after some reluctance over Fischer's behavior in the past ("Bobby has problems" he warns Marshall. "So did Mozart" is the reply), agrees to oversee his progress through the Championship.
Fischer's behavior is flinty even in the best of times. But with the added pressure of the tournament, the increasing stakes, the growing attention paid to it, and the less-than-five-star accommodations the privately funded endeavor can afford (as compared to the Soviets'), he begins to crack under the competitive strain. His behavior turns petulant, paranoid (he's convinced that his phone is bugged—he's just not sure if it's by the Russians, the Americans, or the press) and he begins to act out, complaining about his pay, his rooms, the venue for the contest, the audience for the tournaments, even the noise coming from the air conditioner in the tournament hall. Anything that distracts him from the game becomes intolerable, and everything is distracting from the game—even the pressure of the game itself.
In one brilliant sequence (aided and abetted by sound designer Lon Bender), a tournament becomes torture, as every single noise in the room is amplified to the point of irritation—the scrape of a pencil taking notes a few tables down, the tick of a clock, the buzzing of the room's "exit" signs—his focus on the game is so acute that everything else becomes larger than life in significance. And as Lombardy duly notes "without chess, he doesn't exist."
Check and mate.
Chess is all he knows. And although he may be king of his castle, the board that Bobby Fischer is playing on is neither uniform nor even—it is, in fact, very unstable—and if one has built a life around the tactics of chess and not much else, life can be daunting on that field, as it is full of shifts and turns, both seen and unseen (and sometimes only suspected) that may un-do oneself some many moves down the road. Why are you making THAT move? What's the reason you're moving THAT piece? Is that part of a plan to take me down? And just because I don't see it does not mean that it ultimately will not be my demise. Chess breeds paranoia if you take it too seriously.
Life is not like chess. It is, only if you assume every person you see is trying to beat you and take everything away from you. The funny thing about chess is, more often than not, it is not the other player's strategy that defeats you, it is the way you react to their moves, which can lead you into a trap that you ultimately can't get out. You defeat yourself.
This sort of movie is where director Ed Zwick is at his best—a small movie where individuals interact in interesting ways (His TV movie "Special Bulletin" is a favorite of mine). He has been stuck in a rut doing movies that have an epic sweep since Glory (and Legends of the Fall, The Siege, The Last Sumarai, Defiance, and the like), which ultimately feel a bit empty, but he's at his best in more personal movies without much reach but a lot of room for depth. His cast in this is superb without a false note in the bunch—and Maguire's performances can be problematic in that regard, but not here, where despite not looking like Fischer, he manages to make a distinct portrait of almost sympathetic paranoia. Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg are becoming ubiquitous in movies now, which is all to the good for movies in general—they are the very best of utility players, who, like Mark Ruffalo, are at the cusp of breaking out into full-blown stardom.
Not many people saw Pawn Sacrifice and more's the pity. It's an intelligent script (okay, there's a gaffe involving Jimi Hendrix) with a lot of very good actors doing extraordinary work. But, there's a reason the film was on The Blacklist—that's where really good scripts that aren't very marketable go to wait to be noticed. It's still waiting.