Stars: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Writer: Steven Knight, story by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Steven Knight
Director: Edward Zwick
Distributor: Bleecker Street Media
Release Date: September 16, 2015
Chess is not an inherently cinematic game. Couple it with a main character who is actively unlikable, and it sounds like the makings of a movie that is at best hard to watch. Yet PAWN SACRIFICE turns out to be immersive. Directed by Edward Zwick and scripted by Steven Knight from a story by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Knight, the film explores the life of real-life World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, played as an adult by Tobey Maguire, as an adolescent by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick and as a child by Aiden Lovekamp.
Bobby grows up in the Forties and Fifties, when his single mom Regina (Robin Weigert) is involved in leftist politics in Brooklyn, while anti-Communist fervor starts sweeping the country. Regina winds up bequeathing her paranoia to her son, though not her philosophy. As a boy, all Bobby cares about is chess. Regina takes him to an expert who realizes Bobby’s talent and soon the boy is playing and winning matches against adults.
As a boy, Bobby seems perfectly happy thinking about chess every waking moment. As a teen, he starts to become hyper-sensitive about anything that distracts him, lashing out at his mother for making too much noise. Bobby only becomes more eccentric as he grows older, exhibiting what in 2015 would likely be diagnosed as Asperger’s, but is simply seen at the time as unpredictability and rudeness.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, a well-heeled, self-proclaimed super patriot who sees in Bobby a means of defeating the Soviet Union, if only at the chess board. Marshall gets backing together to sponsor Bobby, enlists the aid of one of Bobby’s old mentors, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), and sets about putting the chess genius across the table from the Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), considered to be the world’s best player.
The biggest obstacle to Bobby’s success is not Spassky, the government or any outside force – it’s Bobby’s total inability to empathize with anyone else. Sometimes this works in Bobby’s favor, as when he holds out for more money; sometimes, it makes life utterly impossible for those around him.
PAWN SACRIFICE isn’t a movie about chess so much as it’s about different kinds of people – those few who, like Bobby, are incapable of understanding their impact on others, and those like Marshall, who are so desperate to be in the presence of something extraordinary that they will put up with just about anything for that experience.
Maguire conveys Bobby’s single-mindedness, sometimes expressing it with a self-pleased, impenetrable calm and sometimes with a ferocity that is scarily unpleasant to behold. There is no getting through to him, no appeals to either logic or humanity that will make a dent. It’s a very persuasive portrait, done with compelling conviction.
We don’t get to know much about Spassky, save that he is usually gentlemanly but that Bobby gets to him. Schreiber is suitably thoughtful in the role. Stuhlbarg puts soul and fervor into Marshall and Sargaard brings welcome urbanity to Lombardy, though it feels like we should get a little more scripted insight into their lives in Bobby’s wake, especially as they appear to be composite characters. If the filmmakers are invoking dramatic license, it seems like they could add some fiber while they’re at it.
Then again, PAWN SACRIFICE is not about people who are especially self-aware. While not as chilly (nor as horrifying), PAWN SACRIFICE is in some ways reminiscent of last year’s FOXCATCHER, with a powerful, unbalanced man creating havoc for those around him as he tries to fulfill his dreams. PAWN SACRIFICE won’t tell you how to become a better chess player, but it may provide some helpful tips in how to avoid letting a brilliant man become an uncaring messiah.
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