A Grating Disconnect: A Review of ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

by | Oct 8, 2015 | Arts & Culture, Creative Nonfiction, Film and Media

Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice uses all the overt drama of its topic: the young life, genius, and mental illness of chess champion Bobby Fischer, in the height of his career. But on the tightrope between biopic artistry and thrilling dramatization, the movie runs—and runs clumsily—over the nuances of its story. The movie accomplishes essentially what it sets out to do: it strains its audience past the point of comfort, bringing to the screen the stress of Fischer’s continual instability. But it shifts, at the last, into a distanced mode that robs the movie of its real impact.

Pawn Sacrifice trails through the years leading up to, and then settles into a lengthy focus on, the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match of the 1972 World Chess Championship. Starring Tobey Maguire as the film’s subject, the movie for the most part functions as a biopic of Fischer, the working-class Brooklyn chess prodigy famous for his unpredictable genius and his demanding conditions for play.

On the surface, it’s a watchable, satisfying movie. The plot creates emotive strain between its characters, as Fischer struggles to manage travel, celebrity, and the game itself on his already shaky mental health. Rasping, super-amplified sounds and close-up shots, used to emphasize the heightened impact of ordinary stimuli on Fischer as a child and then an adult, are unexpected and effectively disconcerting. But the movie, with the overtones of a thriller, lacks a level of convincing humanity.

What makes that shortcoming particularly grating, though, is the obvious and unflattering shift in quality from the first half to the second. A consistent adherence to its early vitality might have elevated the off-pace, simplistic drama of the second half. And, additionally, a stronger conclusion may have left a kinder final impression of the film as a whole. That said, the movie rose above the level of shock-value which its premise skirts, largely thanks to the alert, immersive acting of its cast. Maguire, as Fischer, is surprisingly, vehemently engaging, and Liev Schreiber’s reserved, pampered, but paranoid Spassky is a presence on screen.

Zwick gives the sense of trying to preserve the disturbing mystery around Fischer by hovering emotionally out of the fray, as an onlooker. The further into the film, the more the point of view tends to linger with characters at the edges of Fischer’s intensifying mental instability, rather than with Fischer himself. The narrative eye belongs to his small circle of companions: his scheming and overly-patriotic celebrity lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg); his second, a whiskey-drinking and cursing priest, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard); and his sister, Joan (Lily Rabe), watching from afar in Brooklyn. These characters occupy a spectator role, helpless to access the inner workings of Fischer’s obviously tormented mind. They become windows onto Fischer’s more private moments, but not onto his point of view. A sneaking discomfort ensues, and a sense of unproductive voyeurism comes down over the film’s final segment.

The movie’s premise brings to mind a less endearing rendition of Beautiful Mind.

It’s difficult to say through whose viewpoint we see the climatic match against Spassky and its whirlwind of media attention. Is it Spassky, who has been granted a few awkward asides, sneaking off to play pinball or shouting at the listening devices he believes are in his hotel room? Is it Lombardy, seemingly the only protagonist beside Fischer able to follow the mechanics of the genius’s game? Is it the watching television audience across the U.S., including Joan and Fischer’s estranged mother?

At the moment we want the most access to Fischer’s genius, we find ourselves held back. Zwick maintains that distance between Fischer’s disturbing inner world—his broiling bigotries, his impending and heavily foreshadowed personal disaster—and the film’s narrative. And there’s something grotesque about that distance, the all-out energy of Maguire’s acting—boyish, confident, disturbing—and our lack of comprehension of what’s happening inside the character’s head.

The movie does establish some intimacy with its protagonist, but weirdly, this intimacy fails at the moment when it should have its greatest sympathetic impact. We pity and admire young Fischer and then teenaged Fischer, with his intensifying career as well as his hypersentivity and anxiety. We experience his fixation and vexation, as his world gradually narrows to a chessboard. His outbursts surprise us, they alarm us, but we aren’t tempted to dismiss his anxiety as simply wild.

When the burden of sustaining that sympathy becomes greater though, in Fischer’s young adulthood and in the midst of his growing fame and paranoia, the movie can’t support our desire to understand its subject. We see scenes of a mind going to ruin, telephones destroyed in search of listening devices, matches skipped or abandoned, hear Lombardy relate the story of mental implosion in a past young chess genius. Joan presents evidence to the profits-and-patriotism-focused Marshall, a stack of rambling letters Bobby has written to her, where, among other things, he worries about plans against him by “the Jews.” “We’re Jewish. Bobby is Jewish,” Joan says, leaning across the table. “What do you people say to him when he comes out with this trash?”

Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky and Toby Maguire as Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice

Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky and Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice

The movie’s premise brings to mind a less endearing rendition of Beautiful Mind. This is a film when we know we may not be asked to sympathize with the sufferer. But Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t displace sympathy from its protagonist gracefully; rather it watches over Fischer as he grows, follows his startling outbursts, his stress and physical over-stimulation. But somehow all that development, all that careful following in young Fischer’s footsteps, feels inconsequential, or at least not wildly useful, when we arrive at the fathomless drama of the adult Fischer. The strands of our sympathetic attention hang loosely, aware of when they’re meant to be tugged and twisted. But the effect, in the end, is more formulaic than cohesive.

Biographical film typically aims to give insight into a notable moment in a notable life. But there should also necessarily be an urgency to that account: not simply a familiar report, a dramatic reenactment, but an engagement with the psychology and pathos of experiencing it. Psychology is a buzzword in the movie. Bobby isn’t all right: everyone is concerned and no one can fathom how to approach him. But as the other characters become more and more mystified by his illness, a curious shift occurs in the film: we, the audience, are also tossed out of the circle of understanding.

And the movie’s central flaw, its frustrating inertia, is that it falls short of trying to answer Joan’s question. We like his friends and caretakers, look on as spectators, outsiders to the complexities of Fischer’s illness. All we experience are its ugly edges, its boundaries. In the film’s awkward conclusion, a documentary clip of the real Fischer plays just before the credits. In this footage, a much-older Fischer voices his suspicions that the Jews and the Russians are coming after him. He looks haggard, bearded. The movie does not act as a primer to better understand this ugly material, to engage with this last, dismal moment in a way we might not have if we hadn’t just experienced Pawn Sacrifice’s rendition of Fischer’s story. Madness is madness, says the logic of the film. All we can do is back away, slowly.

There are thin moments that qualify this logic: Fischer is treated as manageable, but not treatable, throughout the film. Perhaps the audience is meant to be left wondering if Lombardy and Marshall should be the ones held as reprehensible in the end. Throughout the film, they celebrate Fischer’s victories and then bundling up his outbursts in quick, temporary appeasements.

Spassky, too, arises as something as a foil to the clumsy drama of a “crack up.” Sparsky believes fervently that his government is spying on him, that the high-pitched electric hum coming from his chair at the World Championship is a spy device. In an embarrassing but never-resolved scene, he stands in front of X-ray images of the chair, innocently devoid of microphones or cameras. It’s unclear, though, the bottom line of Spassky’s paranoia, side by side with Fischer’s. Schreiber plays Spassky so calmly, so collectedly, that his suspicions seem utterly reasonable, the result of contained and concentrated fear over years and years, directly under the scrutiny of his government.

Fischer is not in a dissimilar situation, tightly controlled and touted in front of cameras that overstimulate and confuse him, but his eye-popping, pulsing-veined ferocity makes him distinctly less likely to resonate with the audience. Rarely is he seen speaking and acting calmly, or even logically: he seems already lost to reality. By the end of Pawn Sacrifice, what we have gained is a sense of a well-made, dramatic reenactment, with a few fictionalizing liberties. The film’s motivation is the thing left most in question.


About The Author

Alison Lanier

Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor currently working in communications at MIT. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is part of the editorial team at Mortar Magazine and AGNI as well as at Atticus Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine Online, Bust, The Establishment, and elsewhere.