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To Try And Be King, Make A Pawn Sacrifice

Updated on October 3, 2015
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Pawn Sacrifice tells the story of the early life of chess legend Bobby Fischer and his fight to take on the world's greatest chess players while fighting growing demons inside him. Tobey Maguire stars as the young adult Fischer, who wants to play the Soviets, and play the matches on his terms. Even as a boy, he demanded much from his mother and others, especially his mother Regina (Robin Weigert). Regina may have found her son difficult, but she also supported his love of chess, and let him experience play against others. That led them to Bobby's early mentor, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla). The learning and the experiences made him a grandmaster by age sixteen.

While still in his teens, he participated in a tournament against other world masters, but found defeating some of them unsatisfying, especially the Soviets. He accused his Soviet opponents of conspiring to throw their matches. His play, though, led to lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) seeking to represent Fischer as his agent. Fischer agrees, and participates in other national and international tourneys. To help him in his matches, Bobby works with Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a priest who'd been among those who'd shown they could defeat Fischer. When the Soviets come stateside for competition, Bobby declares he wants a shot at reigning world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Spassky bests Fischer there, but the American aims for a rematch. Bobby's behavior, though, catches the attention of Bill and Bobby's sister, Joan (Lily Rabe). He sends his sister rambling letters, and Bill observes Bobby listening to anti-Semitic and anti-Communist beliefs. His behavior may be troubling, but he gets to meet Spassky in 1972 for the world championship in Reykjavik, with the world media considering the match a Cold War of chess. Fischer, though, falls two games behind in a match that draws television attention.

Pawn Sacrifice, based on events during Fischer's run of dominance in the sport, is an entertaining, but sad, look at a man who demanded a lot of himself and others. As was the case with his 2008 film Defiance, director Edward Zwick presents a film that tells of Fischer's issues, but in a superficial way. How, for example, did the chess legend, who was raised in a Jewish household, come to embrace anti-Semitic viewpoints? He was raised during the Red Scare period of the 1950s, and he had anger issues, but his attitude toward the religion of his birth never gets explained. The script from Steven Knight, whose previous screenplay was for the enjoyable 2014 picture The Hundred-Foot Journey, shows a man who could play chess in his head, but could also be a head case with his allegations and complaints. The film never shows him even thinking about seeking treatment, or even seeking the counsel of those closest to him. Perhaps some of Fischer's behavior defies explanation, but Zwick should have suggested some explanations.

Maguire may be several years beyond the actual age of Fisher during the period covered in the film, but he delivers as the young grandmaster. At one point during the California tourney, he confronts Spassky and loudly declares, "I'm coming for you." He makes demands of chess officials time after time, and keeps them busy trying to accommodate him. I do like the moment where a young woman makes him reconsider all of his anger, if only for a little while. Schreiber doesn't have many lines, but he shines as Spassky, a champion who embraces his status - and quietly embraces western culture. Even Schreiber gets to show a little eccentricity in one scene, where he calmly agrees to Fischer's demands to play in a recreation room with no onlookers. Sarsgaard adds quiet dignity as Bill, the priest who has his hands full with Bobby. Fischer may frustrate Lombardy, but a man who defeated Fischer sees the end goal and understands the chess obsession. Stuhlbarg and Rabe also turn in good supporting performances.

Pawn Sacrifice takes a look at the life of a chess grandmaster and his desire to compete at the highest level he could. He may have been able to counter an opponent's moves on a chess board, but he saw conspiracy and distrust when he wasn't playing the game. From an outside perspective, Bobby Fischer represented America against the Soviets. Pawn Sacrifice takes a bit of a look behind that image, and shows a man who had many opponents to great success. The biggest one of those, though, was himself.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Pawn Sacrifice three stars. What will his next move be?

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    • profile imageAUTHOR

      Pat Mills 

      3 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Just think, Mel - Tobey Maguire recently turned 40. Sarsgaard also played a much younger - and still living - Bill Lombardy.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      I love Toby McGuire. I think he has the baby face to pull it off. The story of the Spavsky-Fischer chess matches is legendary, and this film seems like a worthwhile one. Great hub!

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