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 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.
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. As they move toward their clash in Reykjavik, Iceland (handsomely shot throughout the film’s third act), 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. The film takes a witty turn as Schreiber, infected by Maguire’s insanity, becomes equally manic.
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. 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.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Schreiber. Directed by Edward Zwick.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 54 minutes.
Bottom line: A wonderful bio-drama that ends incompletely