********* 7 out of 10 *********
Director: Edward Zwick
Actors: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard
Movies based on football, basketball or baseball are flooded in Hollywood, but a movie on a game of chess? Well, that is a different thing altogether. Chess is a patient game, absent of rallying calls, screaming fans, pumped up fists, and thus understandable not deemed ‘exciting’ enough to get a feature film presentation. So what it needs to arrive on the big screen is a player who would evoke those kind of sentiments, for good or for bad, and bring in that excitement through his eccentricities. The USA has only ever had one Chess World Champion, and luckily enough, his story is more than worthy of being featured on the big screen. Bobby Fischer’s fascinating life story is displayed in Pawn Sacrifice with lot of drama, tension and intensity, keeping his historical matchup with the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky as the main attraction point. Neatly directed and superbly acted, Pawn Sacrifice becomes a movie not for chess fans alone, but for movie-lovers across the globe.
Pawn Sacrifice outlines the life of Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) whose mastery at chess is evident from a very young age. But as he grows into a chess prodigy, he turns into someone arrogant, selfish and overtly paranoid who is difficult to deal with. During the period of Fischer’s ascendancy in the game, the Soviets are regarded as the ones to beat, especially Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) who is the reigning World Champion. Bobby Fischer is bidding for his time to get a matchup with Spassky, but when that day draws near, his paranoia that the world is out to get him, his eccentricities and his rising demands could put a spanner in the works. Bobby Fischer’s battle is not on the chess board alone, but in his mind as well. Could he win them both?
A colourful fascinating life like that of Bobby Fischer is easy to imagine into a movie, but difficult to actually make into one. Which parts of his life do you choose from? Where do you begin and where do you end? The screenplay by Steven Knight, adapted from his story written along with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, should be lauded for being wisely selective and well-paced in its structure. The movie keeps building towards the World Chess Championship between Fischer and Spassky of 1972. By the time we arrive at that point, Steven Knight has painted a picture of a genius who is inspirational but not necessarily lovable.
Director Edward Zwick works along with Steven Knight’s screenplay to bring to us the man, Bobby Fischer, more than his game. Right from the beginning we see him as a troubled personality but that does not make us admire him any less. Edward Zwick merges these two contrasts – a paranoid man & a chess prodigy – without missing a beat to make for the perfect fusion. He does not allow one aspect of Fischer’s personality to submerge the other, which any less experienced director could so easily have done. Zwick comes with a rich history behind him, having directed such wonderful films as Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, and now Pawn Sacrifice can be spoken in the same breath. The music by veteran composer James Newton Howard further adds to the tension ripe in the movie and helps contrast the two different aspects of Fischer’s life that Zwick wants to display.
Bringing Bobby Fischer really alive on screen is Tobey Maguire. Smart and arrogant, that is how Maguire portrays Fischer using a strong body language, an intense expression engraved on his face. Extremely focused on his games, paranoid almost in every other scene, Maguire delivers an astounding performance in this biopic which makes me wonder why we have scarcely seen him on the big screen since Spider-Man 3. Liev Schreiber puts in a solid act as Boris Spassky, as someone older and a bit more reserved. I would have loved to see a bit more of Schreiber as Spassky, for all we get to see of him is during the chess games. A bit more on the person he was, the ideologies he carried, what made him a champion; there was space for maybe an additional ten minutes to give Spassky a bit more personality. The supporting cast does a great job to keep in pace with Tobey Maguire’s Fischer – mainly, Michael Stuhlbarg (as lawyer Paul Marshall) and Peter Sarsgaard (as grandmaster and coach William Lombardy) who are Fischer’s entourage, traveling and working along with him as Fischer seeks to become the world’s best in chess.
Pawn Sacrifice is a lesson as to how stories from sports beyond the ones played on the field can make for gripping movies. Pick the right historical figure, choose bits of his life wisely, and find the right actor to do the job. Pawn Sacrifice gets things more or less right in these departments, thus giving Hollywood a rare movie on chess, which thankfully, turns out to be good. We could do with a few more of these!