Paul Marshall: I think he’s afraid of what’s gonna happen if he loses.
Father Bill Lombardy: No, he’s afraid of what’s gonna happen if he wins.
-from the movie “Pawn Sacrifice“
When, in 2014, the Denver Chess Club was invited to the focus group screening of “Pawn Sacrifice”, I almost skipped the event.
After all, I had twice viewed the meticulously researched “Bobby Fischer Against The World“, so rich in authentic photos, videos, and interviews with friends, family, and grandmasters who knew Fischer personally.
And who was the genius who had cast 5’8″ Tobey Maguire as the 6’1” Bobby Fischer? Was this a comedy?
Au contraire, the film is an underrated masterpiece, one which cost $19M to film and has, at last count after two years, earned about $8M.
This week I brought home the DVD to view with my wife, as she had not attended the screening in 2014. The wife is not a chessplayer, yet is familiar with the game and its history and is an acquaintance of grandmasters. She was suitably impressed, while my own respect for the achievement was renewed by a second viewing.
“Pawn Sacrifice” is a highly fictionalized recounting of the rise of the greatest individual genius the game has known. It is also a vast dramatic simplification of the huge cast of characters and of the many seminal events in the real Fischer’s life.
Fischer’s great achievement is that he stood up to the state-sponsored, organized, disciplined, committee-style chess of the late Soviet sports empire as the only significant American player of his generation and beat them at their own game with nothing more than his own ability to analyze and perform at the board. This is artistically rendered with great sympathy, sensitivity, and a high degree of chess authenticity in the movie.
Maguire, who apparently provided the stimulus to get the movie made, totally owns the role of Fischer, having captured his walk, his facial expressions and other mannerisms, his board behavior, and perhaps even caught a touch of Fischer’s madness in portraying a man who elevated obsessive-compulsive disorder to a high art form.
Liev Schrieber (Boris Spassky) and the other Russian-speaking actors in the movie turn in very credible performances, perhaps the finest vignette of Russian acting in an American film ever. This is only possible because the movie is not an American paean to Fischer, not an act of nationalistic hero-worship, though it depicts the adulation Fischer received from the American masses at the time of the 1972 match.
Instead, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a psychological drama, a morality play, timeless and beyond nationality, exploring to what degree society will allow and even encourage individuals to deviate from the norm when such deviation is accompanied by exceptional performance.
Doctor, my husband thinks he’s a chicken! … How long has this been going on? … About twenty years … Why didn’t you seek help sooner? … We needed the eggs!