The Line Between Genius and Insanity Blurs in “Pawn Sacrifice”
“Pawn Sacrifice” is the story of U.S. chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, who at the height of the Cold War, took on the Soviet’s best chess champion and won, but whose inner demons eventually led to his downfall.
This biopic stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, Liev Schriber as the Soviet champion, Boris Spassky, Peter Sarsgard as his friend and confidant (and incidentally, handed Bobby his first competitive defeat) Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Fisher’s patriotic handler and agent, Paul Marshall.
Bobby’s story begins in Brooklyn where as a child, he serves as his mother’s lookout for any strange vehicles lurking about outside the house. His mother and her friends are suspected Communists, so they’re under constant surveillance by the FBI. This experience has a lasting effect on Bobby, as later in life, extreme paranoia took its toll. To pass the time, Bobby plays chess constantly, either on a board or in his head, and exhibits a rare talent for the game. His mother at first thinks Bobby may have a psychological condition, which requires a trip to the psychiatrist, but then takes him to the New York City chess club to get help. Thus Bobby begins his climb into chess royalty. He becomes the best player in the city, then the United States, and ultimately, the youngest Grand Master in the game. Only the members of the vaunted Soviet chess team stand in his way to being the best player in the world.
I’ve long known the general story of Bobby Fischer, being interested in chess myself, but didn’t know all the details until seeing them in this movie. I was a bit too young for the “Bobby-mania” that swept over the U.S. during the height of his career, but read about his rise and fall later on. Tobey Maguire does an excellent job capturing Bobby’s struggles between genius and insanity, often falling on the unstable side. He’s great at capturing the manic energy and nervous tics Bobby exhibited during his matches. He easily handles the swings between normalcy and outright derangement quite well, often switching between the two and back again in a matter of seconds. Not to be outdone, Liev Schriber personifies the coolness that the real-life Boris Spassky had knowing he was the best in the world and feeling confident in his own skin. He learned to speak Russian for his role, which is a nice touch in a movie like this. Bobby’s support team, Peter Sarsgard and Michael Stuhlbarg, adequately captured the feeling of hanging on for dear life while trying to contain Bobby’s breakdowns.
Director Edward Zwick, of Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai fame, has a talent for capturing the look and feel of historical eras. Pawn Sacrifice is no different. I felt like I was there in the 60s and 70s, in the midst of the unease created by two superpowers who could nuke each other out of existence at any moment. Zwick used real-life historical news footage to advance the story, which added to the feeling of being there. Having personally seen the chess boards of Washington Square Park in New York City, I was a bit giddy to see them again on the big screen.
A co-worker of mine said he was bored by the chess scenes. Granted, since this is a biopic about one of the chess greats, there will be a lot of scenes of people playing chess. This ain’t football, but still, I thought they worked because these scenes gave the actors opportunities to develop their roles in non-verbal ways, which helped give more substance to their characters.
All in all, an interesting study into one of the more complicated people of the 20th century and how one handles genius.