As Cold War proxy-battle lore goes, the story of Bobby Fischer’s 1972 chess match against Boris Spassky is darker and more ambiguous than the story of, say, the Miracle on Ice. America’s beloved “Brooklyn boy” Fischer was already slipping into the madness that would eventually all but consume him, but he was still capable of playing transcendent chess. By the time he’d advanced to the world championship battle, it seemed like everybody (his opponent, to some extent, included) was willing to bend over backwards to meet Fischer’s outrageous demands so that the match could actually take place.
Pawn Sacrifice, director Edward Zwick’s workmanlike new movie about the match, probably wouldn’t meet with the late Fischer’s approval—Fischer was incensed that the producers of the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer didn’t pay him for the use of his name—but it’s as generous a portrayal as he’s likely to get. The title of Pawn Sacrifice refers to Fischer himself, who Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight portray as having been hustled into the match to garner glory for America, instead of given the care he needed for his spiraling paranoia.
Fischer definitely wanted to stick it to the Russians, but he was hardly an American hero—more like an antihero, at best. Two decades after the events depicted in Pawn Sacrifice, Fischer exiled himself from his own country when he accepted an offer to play an unofficial rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, breaking U.S. sanctions against the country and ultimately leading to the issue of a warrant for his arrest. Fischer’s last burst of worldwide infamy came in 2001, when his immediate reaction to 9/11 was to “applaud the act…what goes around, comes around, even for the United States.”
(Among the manifestations of Fischer’s mental decline was a virulent anti-Semitism—which Pawn Sacrifice acknowledges, with Fischer’s sister tearfully observing that the Fischers themselves are Jewish. The film doesn’t explore this too deeply, though, which is just one of its missed opportunities.)
As a sort of Fischer-Spassky 101, the film succeeds more than adequately at bringing us back to the dawn of the Me Decade. The pop music of the era is omnipresent (distractingly so), and production designer Isabelle Guay glories in period detail, from the chain-smoking to the shag carpeting to the international newscasts about the match. Those newscasters carry a heavy share of the narrative load; it falls on them to inform us of developments that Zwick doesn’t have the time or inclination to actually show on screen. “Bobby Fischer has won the national championship!” “Chess fever is sweeping America!” “Grandmasters are shaking their heads!”
Fischer is played by Tobey Maguire, who does a nice job of capturing both Fischer’s swaggering charm and his hair-trigger mental instability. The filmmakers portray Fischer as having been more afraid of winning than of losing, with the idea being that if the world championship became his, he’d be stripped of the one goal that was keeping him anchored to some semblance of reality. That doesn’t exactly jibe with the facts—Fischer was adrift for years in the 1960s, despite having that one big item still remaining on his bucket list—but it works in the context of the film, where Fischer’s loved ones don’t know whether to look on with pride or horror as the unbalanced American finds his footing on the chessboard while losing it everywhere else.
In one of the film’s most provocative lines of dialogue, Fischer’s friend Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a priest, says that medicating Bobby would be “like pouring concrete into a well of holy water.” The film resonates on the persistently fascinating question of identity, talent, and mental health. How great, exactly, does a game of chess have to be to make it worth losing everything else that might matter to you in life? Do God’s greatest gifts come with an inevitable, heavy price? Are genius and stability mutually exclusive? Could Bobby Fischer’s life story have ended much differently? (My hunch: probably not.)
Pawn Sacrifice would have more traction on those questions if it was actually about chess. While Zwick has carved out an interesting little slice of 20th century history to serve up, it will be left to another filmmaker to actually explore the game of chess itself. Here, the gameboard remains largely a black box. As the climactic sixth game of the Fischer-Spassky match unfolds, a game we’re later informed is considered “the greatest ever played,” we simply have to take the various narrators’ word for it that Fischer is doing well. Zwick gives us lots of dramatic closeups of pieces sliding weightily across the board, but rarely any sense of what those movements mean: if Zwick directed the Super Bowl broadcast, all we’d see would be extreme close-ups of bodies colliding and balls being hurled.
Despite the fact that players at Fischer’s level are capable of playing entire games without even looking at a board—they just name their moves out loud, using board coordinates to represent pieces’ positions—when Fischer rewinds games in his mind, we see not abstracted formations but rather grainy, subjective black-and-white footage of his opponents lifting pieces. That may seem like a small thing to take the director to task for, but by eliding the question of what it actually takes to be a world-class chess player, Pawn Sacrifice sacrifices its own uniquely fascinating subject matter.
The film also leaves key plot points ambiguous. The FBI’s presence in Fischer’s life—seemingly a key detail, given Fischer’s maniacal obsession with eluding observation—is left shadowy, with only one early scene functioning to establish the fact that his mother was active in free-thinking circles that raised the suspicion of the McCarthy-era U.S. government, and so instilled her son with a lifelong distrust of governmental authorities. (Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.)
Then there’s the question of whether the Russian players were, in fact, colluding to ensure that one of them would always be world champion. Fischer forcefully alleged as much—arguing that among other ethical violations, Russian players would strategically throw tournament games played against each other, so as to allow certain players to rack up easy points—allegations the film seems to more or less take at face value, though evidence suggests that Fischer’s suspicions were overblown. It’s not the responsibility of a filmmaker to be completely true to life, but it does seem important in this particular film to establish just how crazy Bobby was, or wasn’t.
Despite its shortcomings, Pawn Sacrifice is largely an entertaining and informative movie about an odd yet essential historical episode. After you see it, you might even be tempted to dust off your chessboard and remind yourself of how the game is actually played.