Granger on Movies: ‘Pawn Sacrifice’
The name Bobby Fischer isn’t as familiar today, but back in the Cold War era this eccentric chess prodigy from Brooklyn dominated the headlines.
During the summer of 1972, everyone, including ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports,” seemed to be riveted on a championship match between young American Bobby Fischer (Toby Maguire) and Soviet grandmaster/reigning world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Revolving around that framing device, Fischer’s story unfolds. After losing the first game, belligerent, temperamental Fischer, ever-suspicious of K.G.B. surveillance, refuses to show up for the second, complaining about whirring camera noise and the close proximity of the audience.
In addition, Fischer demands more money and a match relocation to a private ping-pong room. At his side are his support team: Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlberg), an endlessly patient, patriotic lawyer/manager, and Rev. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a grandmaster coach/priest, who compassionately describes chess as “a rabbit hole,” taking players very close to the edge.
Scripted as part bio-pic/part docudrama by Stephen Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Locke”), it’s astutely directed by Edward Zwick (“Defiance,” “Blood Diamond,” “The Last Samurai”), who digitally substitutes Maguire for the real Fischer in a ’71 television interview with Dick Cavett.
Flashbacks show Fischer’s budding genius emerging at age 6, much to the surprise of his sister Joan (Lily Rabe) and Russian/Jewish, left-wing activist mother Regina (Robin Weigert), who was a suspected Communist.
Problem is that looking overtly crazy, Maguire bugs his eyes to telegraph his volatile, paranoid rage. Judging from YouTube videos, the real Bobby Fischer underplayed his obvious idiosyncrasy.
As a result, Schreiber’s intimidating Boris Spassky emerges as the far more intriguing character. And much of the controversy of Fischer’s later years has been left out — like his re-match with Spassky in 1992 and rampant anti-Semitism.
Living in seclusion, his U.S. passport revoked, Fischer called the 9/11 attacks “wonderful news.” In 2008, he died in Reykjavik of kidney failure at age 64.
If you’re intrigued by his ingenuity, see HBO’s “Bobby Fischer Against the World” (2011).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a serious, strategic 6 — check and mate.