In 1972, at of the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the world was captivated by a chess match between the American champion Bobby Fisher (Tobey Maguire) and World Chess Champion from the USSR, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). The childhood of Fisher, the back and forth gamesmanship that went on just to set up the match and then the drama of the matches themselves makes “Pawn Sacrifice” a fascinating movie. It also helps that the movie is filled with two incredible performances by the leads of the film.
Fisher was a brilliant man, probably the best chess player ever, but he was also a troubled man. He was a paranoid bigot who disavowed his Jewish heritage and feared that the American government would exploit his talent for their own agenda and means. The film opens with Fischer in his hotel room, tearing the room apart looking for listening devices. As his paranoia gets hold of him, he bitterly collapses into a ball as he imagines the whole world has set out against him and his talent. We see the origins of Fisher’s paranoia in his childhood. His mother (Robin Weight) holds seemingly endless communist party meetings as Bobby keeps an eye out the window for FBI agents (both real and imagined). Bobby’s only escape from his mother’s ideologies, and her many boyfriends is chess, something that he seems to play nonstop. His mother takes him to a local chess club, hoping that her son will finally lose a match and give up what she considers a worthless game. Instead, he beats the chess master in a matter of just a few moves, and mom soon realizes that little Bobby might have a talent after all.
Fischer as an adult had become the greatest player in America and wanted to prove that he was the best player in the world. A match has been set up in Iceland, with the help of a lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) who always seems to put his countries wishes above the wishes of Fisher, and a chess-playing priest (Peter Sarsgaard). The two combine to be Fisher’s handlers and mentors, something that Fisher seems to want and detest at the same time. Fisher is going to play a man who he has been studying for years, Boris Spassky, an arrogant but talented Russian chess player who has dominated the world chess scene for years. The question is; can they get Fischer to not only agree to the match but get him to Iceland and keep him together long enough to play? The match will fascinate the world and will haunt both men for the rest of their lives.
Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight create a film that is part political thriller with all the intrigue of a spy film and part character study. It’s the story of a man whose mind is slowly losing its grip, just as he needs it the most. The film perfectly captures the time of the early seventies. Americans were still feeling effects of the nuclear tensions between the Soviets and the Americans, in a country being run by a President (Nixon) who would do just about anything to stay in power. By allowing us to see Fisher’s early life, we get a foundation that lets us understand what is going on with Fisher in his adulthood.
Zwick and Knight have created a protagonist that isn’t likable, and it’s to Maguire’s credit that we continue to root for Fisher to win in spite of his personality and his beliefs. Maguire never softens his portrayal of Fisher, who seemingly had two sides, the ultra-paranoid person who doubted everything and the strong-willed chess player who was confident in his abilities to defeat anyone. Maguire lets us get inside the mind of Fisher and experience the extreme highs and lows, as his character slowly slips into madness right before our eyes. It’s a powerful performance that lets us see the many layers of Fisher’s paranoia. Maguire gives us a brilliant performance that dominates the film.
Liev Schreiber is up to the challenge of playing Spassky, the foil of Fisher. Schreiber plays a man who is confident in his ability, honestly believes he can defeat Fischer and is willing to endure Fisher’s strange demands to get the game played. Liev Schreiber is perfect in the part of Spassky, a man who he portrays as the exact opposite of Fisher. Spassky seems to be always in control of his actions, and his emotions and Schreiber plays him with a cool, calculated calm. Peter Sarsgaard is outstanding as the priest who becomes the one person who seems to have Bobby’s best interest at heart. Sarsgaard portrays a man who is trying to say and do the right things to keep another man from coming apart at the seams.
“Pawn Sacrifice” is a fascinating movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even if you know the eventual outcome. The tension of the film builds throughout the movie as we wonder if Bobby Fisher will overcome his demons to win or even play a game that is one of the most mentally tough to win. My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
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