Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
  • Time: 114 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Edward Zwick
  • Cast: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber


In a gripping true story set during the height of the Cold War, American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) finds himself caught between two superpowers when he challenges the Soviet Empire. Also starring Liev Schreiber and Peter Sarsgaard, Pawn Sacrifice chronicles Fischer’s terrifying struggles with genius and madness, and the rise and fall of a kid from Brooklyn who captured the imagination of the world.

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  • Genius. Paranoid. Raging anti-Semite. Recluse in exile. The greatest chess player who ever lived. Bobby Fischer was all this, and a man whose arguably incomparable brilliance and fiercely obsessive character rotted into self-destruction.

    Pawn Sacrifice, written by Steven Knight and directed by Edward Zwick, presents Bobby’s madness as a by-product of the time. Scenes of his childhood show him warning his mother (Robin Weigert) about a car sitting outside their apartment. Surrounded by her communist friends, she reminds him that there are bad people out there who disapprove of what they represent. Later in his bedroom, he watches the shadows of the people passing by his door, hears the hiss of the radiator and the tap tap tap of the shade against the window. He turns to the chess board, his comfort and his curse.

    Bobby was naturally gifted but genius is not built on nature alone; he nurtured his talent at the expense of all else, displaying a myopic dedication that bordered on the superhuman. He was all too aware of his talent, and that was only part of the problem. No one can seem to say no to this highly stubborn prodigy. Not his first teacher, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), who can’t curb his student’s insistence on playing another game, and another game, and another and another. Not his mother, who ends up moving out of their home after Bobby decides to live in the chess club after screaming at her and her latest lover for distracting his game. Not the two men who would suffer long and hard to keep him from going completely out of control during the most important matches of his life. Not even his Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), who would come to symbolise everything Bobby loathed (Communism) as well as lacked (the championship, celebrity, and creature comforts provided by his country).

    What’s especially fascinating about Pawn Sacrifice is how it successfully merges elements of a political thriller, psychological drama, and a good old-fashioned sports film. Chess is not exactly the most visually exciting activity, but Zwick generates a tremendous amount of tension in the famed Fischer-Spassky showdown, presenting their moves as symbols of the political and psychological warfare at hand. It would seem hard to fathom how this game and these players could have gripped the world but, aside from living up to the hype as “The Match of the Century” (Game 6 is regarded as one of the best ever played), it was also a test of superpower strength. The United States was not only beset with the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, but intensely involved in the Cold War with Russia. To have an American defeat the Soviet heavyweight would be akin to David beating Goliath, and would go a long way into restoring national pride.

    More disturbing than Bobby’s escalating mental illness is the willful neglect of those meant to support and protect him, specifically patriotic lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who was friend, mentor, priest, and fellow chess grandmaster. Marshall, whose clientele included the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, ensures Bobby’s public image as a national hero, negotiating his deals and landing him coveted interviews with Dick Cavett and Mike Wallace, but more often repairing the damage caused by Bobby’s unreasonable demands. He fears for Bobby’s mental decline, but Bobby is too valuable as propaganda. Lombardy, meanwhile, may be a better influence but it is Lombardy who dismisses any psychiatric help for Bobby out of concern that it might tamper with Bobby’s game.

    Expertly crafted and thoroughly engrossing, Pawn Sacrifice is blessed with a quartet of impeccable performances. Stuhlbarg and Sarsgaard are as solid as ever. Schreiber may actually be the best of the bunch, skillfully conveying cool contempt, contained emotion, and exasperation and genuine admiration for his competitor. Maguire is all jagged edges; one may sympathise with Bobby’s tale, but Maguire never lets viewers forget that Fischer was man difficult to like and one who was often his own worst enemy.

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