WORDPLAY looks at the crossword in detail from every angle…which sounds dry, but the filmmakers find ways to keep things interesting by concentrating on the people behind the puzzle and its overall effect on culture in general. They talk to a few celebrity fans, including Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Yankees Pitcher Mike Mussina, but the main focus falls on people like Shortz—the lesser known puzzle masters and competitors. You may do a crossword puzzle everyday and not think about what goes in to making it, but after watching someone actually sit down and create it from scratch, you’ll discover there’s almost a science behind it. The majority of the film, however, is spent with the annual crossword tournament Shortz founded in 1978. Again, watching 400 people do puzzles may sound horrifically boring, but the movie spends time first getting to know some of the major competitors, which puts a personal stake in to the game that makes it quite engrossing.
As a film, WORDPLAY is very well made and edited together. It also benefits from the fact that Shortz is a funny and charismatic guy, so much so that I wish we saw more of him and his world instead of focusing on so many of the tournament participants. The competitors are all colorful characters, but after the first five “life portraits” it gets repetitive and you just want to get on with the tournament. Still, I recommend being patient; by the final round of competition, things are so suspenseful I was skeptical that it wasn’t scripted beforehand. That’s not something you expect from a movie called WORDPLAY.
Commentary by director Patrick Creadon, crossword constructor Merl Reagle and Will Shortz: “A crossword puzzle movie? That sounds like a bad idea.” All three have a good rapport together (there’s even Paris Hilton mocking) and it makes for an interesting listen. Both Shortz and Reagle are featured extensively in the movie as crossword experts, so they have plenty to say, while Creadon covers all the traditional film stuff.
Will Shortz (7:09): As great as the competition was, Shortz is still my favorite part of the movie. He’s got some great anecdotes and stories here that are worth a watch.
Stamford (5:37): Extra footage from the floor of the tournament, mostly just talking to random contestants. There are two people who argue whether or not Brad Pitt was in the movie SNEAKERS. I will settle this for you: No.
Miscellaneous (7:35): Just bits and pieces from the various characters’ lives outside of the competition. I thought there was more than enough of this in the movie already, so I’m glad this was cut.
Interview Gallery (12:17): Some more footage from each of the celebrity interviews and its nice that they included it here. Jon Stewart is maybe the most aggressive crossword puzzler ever.
Five Unforgettable Puzzles (14:43): Takes a look at a few of the most ridiculously complex, hard or ingenious puzzles to come out of the New York Times, as well as the people who made them. There’s one that involves a hidden maze that blew my mind.
WORDPLAY Goes to Sundance (21:05): Personal footage from the director of his first trip to the festival. You get a look at the premiere, the Q&A afterwards, and Shortz’s NPR radio show.
Results from Stamford 2006 (3:33): Video from the final round of this year’s tournament. I won’t spoil who the winner is, but it’s somebody from this movie.
WAITING FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Short Film (12:21): A short feature on life in a small town and how the New York Times brings people together. Not exactly sure what this is or why it’s on here. I’d skip it.
“Every Word” Music Video: Featuring a song by Gary Louris, I wasn’t too enthralled by this. The crossword song sung by the old guy in the tournament was a lot better.
Photo Gallery (2:49): A video gallery set to music. I’d rather have a traditional gallery.
The disc also comes with a Booklet containing the Five Unforgettable Puzzles mentioned above, as well as the option to print more copies if you have a DVD-ROM.
Extra Tidbit: Sudoku sucks.