Director Ed Zwick seems unsure of what he wants to say with this film, or why he wants to say it.
Chess is one of those impenetrable pastimes, like sudoku or water polo, that are difficult to center a cinematic narrative around. To make the cerebral struggle that typifies the game something compelling on screen, you would need a captivating central figure, a charismatic performer to portray them, and a sound visual stylist to bring verve to the proceedings. Pawn Sacrifice, principally concerned with dramatizing the life of controversial chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, has at least one of those pieces.
The Fischer we follow in this film is brilliant, paranoid, anti-Semitic and, because someone thought it’d be a good idea for him to be played by Tobey Maguire, utterly devoid of even the faintest sliver of charisma. Tobey’s Fischer is suitably prickly, a stubborn and complex screen presence to be sure, but he’s given so little likability as to be actively repulsive. Every moment he spends on screen feels like being trapped in a small, dimly lit room with a giant fucking spider. It also doesn’t help that, for no reason any logical human could begin to explain, his entire performance feels like a really misguided impersonation of Joe Pesci.
Deeply personal anti-Maguire bias aside, Fischer is a great subject to build a story around, but by subscribing to the Oscar-bait biographical structure, Pawn Sacrifice cuts itself off at the knees before it can ever gel into something truly worthwhile. Steven Knight, the film’s otherwise capable scribe, struggles with the accepted strictures of the biopic machine, hopscotching from Fischer’s unsubtle youth to his prime with little finesse. Smartly, the film goes the Frost/Nixon route, choosing to focus primarily on Fischer’s quest to become chess World Champion by beating arch rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) at the height of the Cold War. It feels like forever until we make it to this section of the story, but once we do, there is a lot to love.
Michael Stuhlbarg is a pleasant addition to the supporting cast as Fischer’s lawyer/handler obsessed with helping the US score a big symbolic win, but Peter Sarsgaard steals the show as a chess playing priest who is the only person not willing to put up with Bobby’s shit. He’s also responsible for explaining the intricacies of chess form to the laypeople on screen (and in so doing, the audience as well.) He gets to utter all the stilted, forced dialogue about how chess can drive a man crazy, but he sells it with his usually flat, but firm sincerity. Schreiber’s turn as Spassky is a blast, too, at all times alluring and unironically cool. In every scene, he’s framed as the polar opposite of Maguire’s fidgety, cloying fretter. It feels like their diametric opposition is meant to be clever political commentary, but that’s where the film falls short.
Director Ed Zwick seems unsure of what he wants to say with this film, or why he wants to say it. There’s some of that Imitation Game verve, hoping to wring the maximum amount of sentiment from exploring social issues within a historical figure’s life story, but Fischer is nowhere near as sympathetic as Turing was, nor does his life follow as simple a narrative throughline. Zwick also wants to experiment visually, employing a disorienting editing style meant to put the audience into Bobby’s fearful POV but only succeeding in causing headaches and eye rolls. Bradford Young’s cinematography offers some sumptuous imagery despite this handicap, capturing a moment in time without beating you over the head with period piece arcanum.
In the end, Pawn Sacrifice asks a lot of questions about Bobby Fischer that it can’t bring itself to bother answering. It wants to explore the relationship between genius and mental health, but finds no meaningful tether. Instead it settles into a groove as a pure thriller masquerading as a sports movie, with some well executed sequences during the Fischer/Spassky series. Those scenes make you forget all the other random pieces the filmmakers try to force onto the board and allow you to appreciate a straightforward battle of wits. The ending leaves a lot to be desired, but for a few shining moments, the film gets it right, even with Tobey’s dead eyed awards chase.