Review: Pawn Sacrifice
The following review was originally part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.
PLOT: The true story of troubled chess champion Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) who – at the height of the Cold War – played a series of famous chess matches against Russian champ Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).
REVIEW: Bobby Fischer is an utterly fascinating figure. A couple of years ago, there was an absolutely brilliant documentary made about his life called BOBBY FISHER AGAINST THE WORLD, and now the gist of that documentary has gotten the feature treatment with PAWN SACRIFICE. Directed by Edward Zwick (THE LAST SAMURAI, GLORY) this is a comprehensive account of Fischer's years battling Boris Spassky for the honor of being called the world's best chess player. During this time, Fischer essentially went mad, becoming a virulent anti-Semite (despite being Jewish himself) and a conspiracy theorist. To Zwick's credit, the screenplay by Steven Knight (LOCKE) doesn't downplay this.
But why then is PAWN SACRIFICE not the great film it should be? While it's still a relatively good film, both intelligently crafted and well-written, Zwick's old-fashioned style, where the story is told in such a straightforward docu-drama way, feels old hat. This is the kind of movie where every ten minutes or so there's a montage set to a popular pop song of the era. It's fine, but it's ho-hum.
The same has to be said for star Tobey Maguire's performance. While he's relatively good as Fisher, it feels like too familiar a role for him. Maguire gets poked fun at sometimes for how over-the-top he goes when playing angry (see BROTHERS), and Fischer is an angry guy, so he feels one note. I never felt like I was watching a full-fledged person, but rather a rage-fuelled caricature. Sure, Fischer was a prick, but considering how the movie seems to be trying to make us root for him as he takes on Spassky, why wasn't more done to get into his psychology? The early scenes depicting his bohemian childhood don't help at all, and feel extraneous.
The supporting characters are actually a lot more intriguing, with Peter Sarsgaard having some wonderful moments as Fischer's “second” - a Catholic priest who is the first to realize how crazy Fischer is becoming. Michael Stuhlbarg also makes a strong impression as the government-connected lawyer who bankrolls Fischer's exploits in the chess world (as befits the era, he constantly has a cigarette in his mouth). The best of all of them is Liev Schreiber as Spassky, while him doing the entire part in Russian, and evoking deep intelligence and even compassion for his competitor.
But, therein lies the problem. In a movie about such a complex figure as Bobby Fischer, how is it that everyone else is so much more interesting? However, I'll fully admit that having seen BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD, PAWN SACRIFICE felt like an ultimately unnecessary film, especially given how closely it follows the beat-for-beat storytelling of that doc. A radically different take on the material, or at least a more unconventional one (maybe even telling the story for Spassky's point-of-view) would have made for a more interesting film. It feels like PAWN SACRIFICE will actually play better to an audience that hasn't seen the doc, so bear that in mind of you spot the doc on Netflix. That said, if I had to choose, I'd go with the documentary – hands down.