‘Pawn Sacrifice’ Review: Quit Searching, They Found Bobby Fischer

'Pawn Sacrifice'

Movie Rating:


The tale of mentally ill chess genius Bobby Fischer has endured for many years over many films. Yet somehow no ever delivered the full-on bio-pic treatment before now. It’s odd given that Fischer managed to make chess an international phenomenon at the height of the Cold War and then endured a tragic downfall. All the dramatic beats were there waiting for a big glossy bio, and now we’ve got one that’s just a comfortably formulaic as you’d expect.

The movie starts out by going through the awkward childhood bio-pic motions, introducing Fischer as a child chess prodigy in Brooklyn who rockets to success while struggling with a troubled home life. It whips by too quickly to have much emotional impact, but gets viewers into the main narrative once Fischer is old enough to be played by a twitchy Tobey Maguire. He eventually hooks up with a lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) who operates as manager and agent and liaison to the State Department (which proves valuable when they turn him into a Cold War symbol in the media). He then finds a mentor/father figure in a priest/grandmaster (Peter Sarsgaard). With those two pillars of support by his side, Fischer went on to become the biggest name in the chess game (woo!) before falling into a spell of paranoid delusion.

As Fischer became more successful, his neurosis grew into genuine psychosis. Tobey Maguire handles all that quite well in a manic and harsh performance that in no way attempts to sugar coat a complicated man. Director Edward Zwick, on the other hand, does try to soften things through over-direction, stealing a few pages from the frustrating ‘A Beautiful Mind’ playbook that needlessly simplifies the challenges of schizophrenia down to a few stylized montages. Zwick’s montage-as-storytelling style also hits its stride once Fischer enters his infamous 1972 match against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

Hard though it may be to believe now, the match was at the center of pop culture since it represented a ‘Rocky IV’-style symbolic battle between two Cold War titans on neutral ground in Iceland. Zwick piles on montages mixing archival newsreels and his own footage backed by a thundering array of pop music hits from the era. It has a pummelling ‘JFK’ effect, only – you know – nowhere near as original. However, Zwick does an admirable job of amping up tensions and even manages to make the climactic chess matches feel cinematic by shooting the hell out of them. After bumbling through the somewhat clichéd setup, the filmmaker settles into a rather entertaining and enlightening second half hinged on the hype and insanity of quite possibly the most famous chess match in history.

The trouble with ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is that it tries to force a complex true story into an inspirational Oscar-bait narrative template that doesn’t quite fit. Sure, this chess match was an extraordinary cultural event and Bobby Fischer is a fascinating figure, but it’s hard to shove him into a hero role given his unfortunate collapse into a racist-ranting recluse immediately after the match. Even though the filmmakers toss in a half-hearted acknowledgement of the late life of Bobby Fischer just before the credits and Zwick attempts to suggest the stress of these events were the fragile man’s breaking point, it still feels like a bit of a cop-out. If the filmmakers had skipped the needless prologue and focused exclusively on this big match, or dared to make a movie about Fischer’s darkest lows as well as his triumphs, ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ might have been the stirring drama it so desperately wants to be. Instead, there’s a square peg/round hole quality to the project that makes it only episodically interesting.


  1. CC

    -“but it’s hard to shove him into a hero role given his unfortunate collapse into a racist-ranting recluse immediately after the match.”
    Yeah. And Ghandi beat his wife. So we should not tell their stories? Nobody is perfect- and this was a historic event in modern history.

    • Phil

      I wasn’t trying to suggest that Fischer’s not worthy of having his story told. I just think it’s disingenuous to try and paint him as pure hero. I would have liked to have seen a more rounded portrayal. Sorry if that was unclear.

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