He’s largely forgotten now, but in his day chess champion Bobby Fischer was legendary. A whiz kid with minimal social skills but prodigious competitive talent, he was considered the Bob Dylan of the chessboard. Fischer was show-offy when he won, a sore loser on the rare occasions when he didn’t. A big draw for the press, he attracted crowds; he even had groupies. It’s hard to imagine that for one brief and shining season in 1972, he made chess sexy.
Fischer was a self-taught Brooklyn boy whose approach combined logical genius and ruthless aggression. At the height of the Cold War, the Russians had dominated the sport for decades. Fischer, the only American with a real chance of defeating the Soviet machine, took the New York chess scene by storm as a schoolboy, and then the national chess scene, and then the global chess scene. The World Chess Championship was big stuff, war on a board. The symbolism of Fischer’s internationally televised match with grandmaster Boris Vasilievich Spassky, one of the greatest players of all time, was enormous.
The wonderful new bio-drama “Pawn Sacrifice” follows Fischer through his ambitious start and increasingly edgy rise. It is a part that Toby Maguire has chased for years and one he plays with tough, hot-tempered brilliance. In Maguire’s portrait of a controversial, amoral, half-mad mastermind, his DNA appears to be at least 25 percent weasel.
Screenwriter Stephen Knight (“Eastern Promises”) and director Edward Zwick (“Glory”) make the US vs. USSR rivalry the film’s central focus. It opens at a time when world champion chess players were not rich, and Fischer, a temperamental control freak, was determined to change that at whatever cost. With his mind overcrowded by trillions of potential strategies, Fischer is ill-equipped to guide his own career. Maguire’s performance shows the rising star’s brilliance and contrary childishness. The scenes where his guides try to steer his mulish obstinacy toward common sense are amusingly ingenious.
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As Spassky, Liev Schreiber is the film’s key asset, speaking in a heavy Russian accent and mostly Russian dialogue. He’s not the villain of the piece, though Maguire’s reaction suggests otherwise.
From their first meeting in California, where the Russian travels with a 12-man security team and stays at in a luxury hotel while Fischer and his two handlers economize in a cheesy motel, he becomes Fischer’s phantom nemesis. As they move toward their clash in Reykjavik, Iceland, Schreiber’s very presence triggers Maguire’s delusions. He pulls apart his bedroom’s phone looking for Russian bugging gear. He feels that the hushed sound of the cameras recording their matches are a distracting clamor. He insists that no battleground except the crowded public hall’s tiny basement ping pong alcove should house their duel. The film takes a witty turn as Schreiber, infected by Maguire’s insanity, becomes equally manic. The film uses the actors’ hypnotic expressions – confidence, impatience, surprise – to stage the progress of their games, not the movement of the rooks and queens.
It disturbingly shows Fischer imagining a rock star lifestyle for himself, and his mounting contempt for his make-believe enemies. His eyes popping with annoyance, Maguire accuses the international chess federation of persecuting him for his ever-rising salary demands. He moves on to rage against made-up Soviet spies and bizarre anti-Semitic outbursts, slighting his own Jewish family. After Fischer beat Spassky, he vanished from the public, as did chess. Living overseas he became a pathetic figure with a tortured psyche. It’s a shame that the film skips that finale. “Pawn Sacrifice” is first class right up to its incomplete endgame.
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe
Director: Edward Zwick
Length: 114 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking)
Raleigh: Colony Theatre. Cary: Regal Crossroads Stadium 20. Chapel Hill: Chelsea Theater. Durham: Carolina Theatre, AMC Southpoint 17.