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Drama Film Review 2015: "Pawn Sacrifice" (Directed by Edward Zwick, With Tobey Maguire, Liev Schrieber, Peter Sarsgaard)
What do you get when you merge themes of a single-minded obsession to succeed, the irreversible negative impact of celebrity and the historical backdrop of Cold War aggression between two of the world's most formidable superpowers? It may look something like Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice". The film is a pulse-pounding, knuckle-biter of a film that is muscular yet nimble and treats its towering, larger-than-life subject as the equivalent of the eye of the storm. Seamlessly meshing archival footage and inspired editing with film FX techniques, the faithfulness of the production values fully immerse the audience and give you a ring-side seat to one of the most meteoric events of the 20th Century. Featuring uncanny portrayals from star Tobey Maguire who truly swings and connects for the fences with a wry, manic, and deeply unhinged performance as well as Liev Schriber's cooly acidic take on reigning Russian chess champ Boris Spassky amounts to the price of admission alone. The film makes clear that not all wars are won or, at least, resolved using the brute force of guns but that intellect and strategy is even more valuable and deadly.
This film traverses some standard biopic formulations in the early going. We first meet grade school aged Bobby as we learn that his Jewish mother is a staunch leftist and that politics is something that Bobby was reluctantly surrounded by his entire life. Rattled by the prospect of being further entrenched in his mother's affairs, he retreats to his room and unearths a wooden chess set. This places him on a path to studying every single chess move permutation imaginable at the time including cross-referencing the moves of other chess greats from different countries. Zwick's treatment of him in his upbringing illuminates his savant-like genius where his photographic memory enables him to take mental snapshots of chess games and commit his and his opponents moves to memory. Suddenly but inexplicably, Bobby starts entering competitions on the local and soon national level where he becomes a National Grand Champion at the tender age of 15. It is in these scenes where Cold War tensions are made clear by well-edited vintage footage - a medley of images that produces a timeline of events in an accessible way.
Michael Stuhlbarg of "Boardwalk Empire" fame really finds his stride as a fixer of sorts who sees a glint of hope in Fischer. Upon first meeting, he exclaims that Bobby is the only person alive who poses a significant threat to the Soviet's and is able to barter a deal. This deal stipulates that their reigning champ Spassky will face off against Bobby not just for bragging rights or endorsements but for political/national supremacy. Bobby, a well-documented anti-Semite, Kanye West-level elitist and despiser of most ethnicites and religious affiliations, agrees to be represented by Stuhlberg in his single-minded conquest to be the greatest of the great no matter if he leaves bodies in his wake. The film expertly magnifies Maguire's range as an actor instead of totally leaning on it. Admirers of his performances in "Cider House Rules" the American family-drama remake of "Brothers" and "Sea Biscuit", to name a few, will marvel at his utterly bonkers depiction of the mentally imbalanced champ. He all but obliterates his typecast as the affable geek in films like "Pleasantville" and as college-aged Peter Parker in Sam Raimi's early 2000's "Spiderman" opus. It is certainly one for the ages and one that merits some Awards consideration. Zwick's use of rapid-fire quick cuts and close-ups that creep inside Bobby's mind and examine his paranoid and very delusional thinking offer up a raw and uncompromising look at his tormented mind frame that has become a slave to the celebrity culture that was spawned out of his legendary ascent.
The movie's commentary is enormous and multi-faceted. The well-researched script by prolific thriller screenwriter Steven Knight (David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises", his own directorial debut "Locke" and "Dirty Pretty Things") gives the audience a significant amount to chew on. Knight's writing paints the US as desperate and foolhardy especially when filtered through the overzealous pronouncements of Fischer who spends a great deal of the film's later acts insisting specifications be custom made when he plays Spassky. In its own way, this through line offers an accurate assessment of the political environment at the time in the face of the imploding Vietnam War and the underhandedness and evil that permeated throughout the Nixon Administration. Nixon, a vehement racist and iconoclast mirrored Fischer's personality sans the genius so it made sense to incorporate him into the film. However, there are several moments where Zwick's reliance on footage winds up bombarding the proceedings. In particular, Spassky's narrative defaults to the backburner and unfortunately we never really get a more than surface-level understanding of his personality or motivations. Beyond both counterpart's inclination toward winning, their common denominator stops there. Although that was a sore part missing from the film, it didn't bog down the overall enjoyment of the movie as the other components, delivered with genuine conviction and aplomb, still kept me glued to my seat in tense anticipation.
So, what if you aren't a chess-head? Will you appreciate this film? The answer is a resounding yes. In the best sense, the film borrows elements from "Dr. Strangelove", "Zodiac", and, more recently, Gary Oldman's prestige Cold War-set espionage thriller "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy." The thing that separates it apart from the former three is the high-velocity pacing. Whereas those earlier films were each unique, slow burns that took a heavier and more sly investigative approach, "Pawn Sacrifice" behaves as restlessly and unpredictably as the man its profiling. Much in the same way that Fischer re-defined the game with unorthodox playing styles and never giving his opponent the same game twice, this movie constantly reshuffles its pieces while keeping its eye squarely on cultivating a compelling story and trying very hard to understand the often misunderstood central figure. The movie accomplishes what earlier documentaries - most notably 2011's acclaimed "Bobby Fischer Against The World" - could only dream of. It repackages it as a psychodrama and modern fable and at just under two-hours retains its slight of hand and excellent character studies without running the risk of being overly informative. The supporting cast ably anchors the film well with Peter Sarsgaard as a one-time chess prodigy turned priest and Michael Stuhlberg's government fixer/liason Paul Marshall acting as the moral compasses and counterbalance to Fischer's impulsivity and recklessness.
Come for the history lesson, the powerhouse acting, and the passionate filmmaking of Zwick that marks a triumphant and sizzling return to form after several recent duds in his filmography. You will walk out of the theater bedazzled and breathless.