Fischer vs. Spassky in Cold War chess thriller ‘Pawn Sacrifice’
The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was waged on many fronts. One of the most intense and memorable confrontations took place not on a battlefield, or in a congressional hearing room, but in an indoor sports arena in Reykjavik, Iceland.
At this venue in 1972, the temperamental American chess phenom Bobby Fischer duked it out with defending Russian champion Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship, an event publicized at the time (and still thought of) as the Match of the Century.
There’s a lot of drama here—Fischer’s eccentricity, political agendas, the “big game” motif—most of which is used to good effect in Pawn Sacrifice. While the plot revolves around the famous 1972 match, through canny use of select flashbacks (along with a harrowing glimpse into the future via newsreel footage at the very end), the film provides a long view into the unorthodox life and times of Fischer, forever teetering on the crumbling border between genius and madness.
Scripted by Steven Knight, the film is thoughtfully directed by Edward Zwick, veteran of TV’s thirtysomething and many other screen credits. In the starring role, Tobey Maguire has to ratchet down his innate likeability to play Fischer in all his abrasive, paranoid complexity. Nobody (including the filmmakers) understands Fischer any better at film’s end, but Zwick and company successfully reconstruct the context within which he rose to fame.
Bobby Fischer captured the world’s imagination as a chess prodigy from Brooklyn who became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. championship (at age 14). In the film, he and his sister grow up fatherless with their immigrant mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), of Polish-Jewish extraction. Because she and her then-husband (probably not Bobby’s father) lived for a while in Russia, she is shown to be under surveillance by U.S. government forces in the Red Scare 1950s.
His mom takes little Bobby to the local chess club hoping he’ll lose to someone and get over his obsession with the game. Instead, the club president, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla) becomes Bobby’s teacher, shepherding him around to junior tournaments. An international grandmaster in a field dominated by Russians, the adult Bobby (Maguire) is approached by agent Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who indicates the government is interested in Bobby’s success. Marshall signs on Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Catholic priest and former champion who once mentored Bobby, as Bobby’s tournament “second” (chess players, like all duelists, have seconds), and they set out to seize the championship from the Soviets.
I don’t know if Marshall was based on a real person, but he’s used in the film to represent the forces of socio-political darkness, to whom Bobby’s mental stability is less important than winning the match for Uncle Sam. Still, Bobby’s increasingly vitriolic anti-Communist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, along with his paranoia about wiretaps and spies, seems to be mostly self-induced. When he finally meets the formidable Spassky (Liev Schreiber, giving his entire performance in Russian), disaster looms—the moderator distracts him, the audience and the cameras are too noisy. Only by moving to a quiet room in the back—which happens only after Bobby forfeits Game 2 by not showing up—can the match continue.
With all these undercurrents at full throttle, the match unfolds like a thriller, even if you know nothing about chess. Zwick doesn’t try to replicate the games play-by-play, but as Lombardy and Marshall follow along on a board offstage, we get a sense of the audacity and complexity of Bobby’s moves, and their effect on the confident, yet ever more amazed Spassky.
An unlikely candidate for America’s Sweetheart, Fischer still became a huge international celebrity after the match. He continued to play around the globe, although, in later years, U.S. officials seemed bent on living up to Fischer’s paranoia, issuing a warrant for his arrest after he played a match in Communist Yugoslavia that made him an eternal nomad, unable to ever return to the States. Fischer is still considered by many as the greatest chess player of all time. Zwick’s film invites us to ponder if that is enough.
With Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, and Peter Sarsgaard. Written by Steven Knight. Directed by Edward Zwick. A Bleecker Street Media release. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.
THE SEARCH IS OVER ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ finds its Bobby Fischer in former Spiderman Tobey Maguire.