Pawn Sacrifice

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I remember leaving the theatre after Avatar and my friend said, “What bothered me about that movie was the fact that I had to root against the humans. I wanted the blue aliens to win, because of what we were doing to their planet. How can you enjoy a film when you’re not rooting for the human race?”

It was an odd statement because it was a fictional story, and the blue aliens are the ones we were supposed to root for.

In this movie, I may be alone in the fact that I was rooting for Russian chess champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) to wipe the floor with Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire). That’s because Fischer was such a mean-spirited nutjob. Of course, we all know Fischer became the greatest chess player ever, so in that regard, even if you didn’t know the outcome, you probably could’ve guessed it.

I played chess, but you don’t have to be a player to appreciate this movie. For example, once the grand masters are playing, us novice players aren’t aware of what strategies were employed. I’m guessing that fact might bother some, but it shouldn’t. Just knowing this is a game that involves such an intelligence and planning moves ahead and anticipating opponents moves…makes it all dramatic enough. For example, I loved the scenes where players are matching up in a tournament, and their coaches are recreating their moves in chess boards in the backroom, to see what it is their players are up to. Who would’ve realized that was even a thing?

Having read the stories in the newspapers about how crazy Fischer became later in life, I found it interesting that this movie tackles the early stages of his craziness. As a young man, he snaps at his mom for having a boyfriend over. As he goes on about the man’s “size 12 shoes,” we might just think he’s a snotty kid that really just wanted complete silence while studying chess moves. As he becomes more and more obsessed with believing his phones are bugged or that he’s being followed, we aren’t sure if this has to do with his mother being a Russian communist and all the Cold War drama going on in the world. Yet once he hooks up with a coach and lawyer, and is still tearing apart his hotel rooms like Gene Hackman in The Conversation – we realize he’s just lost his marbles.

We also know that chess players don’t want a lot of noise, but the obsession with which Fischer becomes with every sound in the room he’s playing – someone in the crowd coughing, a clock ticking – you wonder how he was able to beat all those people in various games in the parks of New York.

The movie would’ve been more interesting if we saw the back story from Spassky, especially since he’s played by Schreiber. This guy is amazing in every movie he’s in (The Russian in Salt and the French-Canadian in Goon, are two foreign characters that come to mind).

I was curious to know more about Father Bill Lombardy, who is played with an intelligent calmness by Peter Sarsgaard. He was a grand master who once defeated a young Fischer and is “trying” to coach his former opponent.

Another underrated actor is Michael Stuhlbarg (Blue Jasmine, Men in Black 3, and star of A Serious Man). He players lawyer Paul Marshall, who may or may not be working with the government (depending on if you believe him, or Fischer’s paranoid mind). Some of his clients including rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, so…showing that side of his life might’ve added a bit of excitement.

A lot of elements in this movie reminded me of the recent documentary Being Evel. Evel Knievel was making millions around the same time in the early ‘70s, although Fischer turned down the millions of dollars in endorsements because of his increasing mental state. Both became famous because of the ABC show “Wide World of Sports” showing their events (this was in a time where you didn’t have the internet showing you everything, so the people that became famous were on TV).

Toby Maguire, who recently said in an interview he’s been trying to get this movie made for almost a decade, does a nice job with the Brooklyn accent and showing a man with mental problems. It’s refreshing that Maguire and director Ed Zwick didn’t shy away from his personality quirks, which make him rather unlikable, but are a lot more realistic.

The soundtrack was a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usual hits you get showing the time period, we got to hear Carl Perkins “Matchbox” as well as some Spencer Davis Group, The Ventures, Al Green, and when we hear CCR’s “Traveling Band” it wasn’t for a scene in Vietnam, but the manic craziness of trying to get a genius nutjob to the airport against his will.

I’m guessing audiences will be bothered they don’t understand chess moves. If they were watching a sports movie, they may not ever have played a down of football, but can appreciate some great catch in the end zone. If it were a basketball movie, they could understand the importance of a player hitting a 30-foot jump shot with a defender in his face, to win the game at the last second.

When you hear an announcer say “Pawn to King 5” it might mean very little, but when you watch the applause Fischer gets in one match…and who starts clapping first…you can’t help but get chills the way you would watching the best sports films.

Bobby Fischer was that strange person who was an anti-Semitic Jew, who was part Russian…and hated the Russians. He was a genius that at times, lacked common sense.

This movie won’t be a checkmate when it comes to box office receipts, but for those that venture out to see it, they’ll be glad they did.

This gets 3 stars out of 5.

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