Pawn Sacrifice: The Madness of King Bobby

Pawn Sacrifice Poster

Image source. Copyright Bleecker Street, 2015.

We’ve seen this kind of movie before. The “troubled genius” story – think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game – gets its latest incarnation in Edward Zwick’s new movie about chess champ Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire).  Fischer’s claim to genius? One of the youngest chess grandmasters ever, winner of the so-called chess “Game of the Century,” and victor of the highly publicized 1972 World Chess Championship against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber). His fatal flaw, à la Nash’s schizophrenia and Turing’s closeted homosexuality? Extreme paranoia, rampant anti-Semitism, and a ridiculously overinflated ego.

Zwick’s biopic follows a standard setup, starting in Fischer’s childhood and then running through the events leading up to his climactic duel with Spassky in 1972, which Zwick takes pains to portray as a crucial symbolic victory for the U.S. in the Cold War. The movie is well-done as far as it goes. It spares nothing in its relentless build-up towards the final climax; you’ll be on the edge of your seat throughout. Tobey Maguire does a fine job portraying the ins and outs of Fischer’s maddening brilliance.  And the soundtrack, edgy and energetic, is golden.

But in spite of its strengths, Pawn Sacrifice still fails to stand out from its peers in the genre, for a few reasons. First, there’s the question of significance. Why should anyone who’s not a chess aficionado care about Fischer and his accomplishments, amazing as they may be? Zwick’s answer, which ties Fischer to the ongoing Cold War and the cultural turbulence of the 1960s, doesn’t satisfy. Zwick intersperses shots of Fischer winning with footage of Kennedy and Nixon, and every other piece of dialogue in this movie mentions something about “beating the Soviets,” as if to underscore the stakes behind Fischer’s triumph over Spassky. But the Cold War went on for almost 20 years after Fischer’s glorious victory, and there’s nothing in the storyline to indicate that anything happening culturally in the U.S. at the time had any effect on Fischer’s playing, or vice versa. As nice a photo-op moment as Fischer’s victory was, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, both of whom are shown eagerly following Fischer’s match on television, both did so much more to affect the course of the Cold War than Fischer, no matter what Zwick tries to make us think. John Nash made important contributions to game theory. Alan Turing helped the Allies win World War II. Bobby Fischer…won a bunch of chess games. This may be more of a fault of the subject matter itself, not the filmmaker, but Zwick’s attempts to make Fischer bigger than he was don’t work.

Then there’s the issue of Fischer’s madness. As the movie marches towards the climactic Spassky-Fischer showdown and Fischer’s deranged personality becomes a greater impediment to his playing, the movie seems unsure of how to deal with Fischer’s insanity. For a bit before the final championship match, as we see Fischer crouching in the corner of his room, wincing at every tiny squeak and click, throwing away everything he’s worked for because he’s convinced the Soviets are out to “get him,” it looks like Pawn Sacrifice is about to tackle head-on Fischer’s madness and how it unraveled a brilliant mind. But then Fischer goes to the match, and his mental issues are pushed aside to make way for the usual shots of reporters frantically commenting on how “significant” the match is, important people watching their TV sets, and audience members cheering wildly when Fischer wins. There could have been a far more interesting movie here examining Fischer’s mental health problems and how they contributed to his rapid demise after his victory over Spassky. But most of the details about Fischer’s eventual downfall are relegated to a few sentences thrown on the screen right before the credits; the feel-good story takes up most of the running time.

And even then, the film doesn’t really leave you feeling good at the end. Maguire has done such a nice job of showing how cocky Fischer was that we don’t necessarily feel very happy that Fischer eventually wins. Are we supposed to sympathize with a guy who spends most of his screen time either behaving like a spoiled brat or airing his delusional conspiracy theories? Yes, Fischer clearly suffered from serious mental health problems, but because Zwick fails to fully address the issue, it’s difficult for us to understand where Fischer’s rants and delusions are coming from. There were many times in this movie where I wouldn’t have minded seeing Fischer fail, just so he would stop acting like an arrogant jerk. The only thing going for Fischer here is that he’s actually good at what he does – but as I said before, other “troubled geniuses” like Nash and Turing did far more than Fischer. What we’re left with is an arrogant madman unaware of his own limitations. Not exactly someone easy to like.

All in all, Pawn Sacrifice is a good, if not great, addition to the “troubled genius” genre. Fischer is a different species from most of the “troubled genius” figures we’ve seen before. He’s both less significant and far less likable. Zwick does well with what he has, but when you leave the theater, you might just be wishing for something more than what’s given here.

Vital Stats:

Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Running Time: 115 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Directed By: Edward Zwick

Written By: Steven Knight, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson