Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

From a history standpoint, Edward Zwick's Pawn Sacrifice is pretty interesting, but as a portrait of Bobby Fischer (who's played by Toby Maguire) and the game of chess, it's dull. Chess on a competitive level is terrifyingly complex. As Peter Saarsgard, playing Fischer's coach William Lombardy, says, "after only four moves, there's over three hundred billion options to consider," and "more forty-move games than there are stars in the galaxy." As a viewer with a mild sense of the rules of the game, I found myself distanced from the actual chess action, just as I would have been if I had been one of the millions who watched his famous matches on live TV. 

The film plays out like a sports movie, but while the action in other sports films is easy to grasp even if you don't know much about the game's intricate details, here the viewer needs to be equipped with a really good sense of the particulars of chess to get any real enjoyment out of what Fischer is accomplishing. While it's not the film's fault that its most tense chess moments don't register any real excitement for anyone who's not adept at the nitty-gritty aspects of the game, it does nonetheless result in a sense of indifference for the viewer. There's a reason why we don't see very many chess movies. 

On the flip-side, though, one has to also acknowledge that in any film about a competitive game, the way it's presented often takes precedence over how it's being played. For the latter, you have sports in real life to really dig into rules. As to the former, the film must be given credit for making the chess action tense enough to keep the viewer watching. For example, during the championship games at the film's climax, though it's hard to tell what Fischer and his opponent are doing on the board, there's a sense of invigoration and unease with the way Fischer keeps abruptly rising from his seat, distracted by the sound of the cameras or people coughing in the audience. 

 But again, because chess is so elaborate, neophytes of the game are mostly left scratching their heads over why this matters. The indifference is heightened by the fact that the film's hero is conceited, self-satisfied and paranoid, which makes us really not all that happy over his enormous success. Again, this is not really any fault of the film since that's pretty much who Fischer was in real life (and one must also acknowledge Maguire, who makes the difficult job of capturing Fischer's almost constant transitions from smug asshole, to strange apathy, to freaky paranoia seem easy). But at the same time it adds tedium to the overall experience of the film because it can never really get inside Fischer's head or allow Maguire's characterization of this American icon to be anything but a series of arrogant and awkward remarks and angry declarations that evince the instability of his psyche. 

But there have been other portraits of troubled geniuses in film that have been good right? Sure, just take Amadeus, which chronicled the tumultuous life of Mozart and his rivalry with Antonio Salieri. In fact, this film even compares Fischer to Mozart at one point. But where that movie ultimately fascinated because of the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, here there's no truly interesting counterpart to Fischer, despite a good amount of supporting players.

Saarsgard is mostly by-the-books as Lombardy, his job mainly to demonstrate exasperation over Fischer's volatile behavior. The same can be said for Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), his business manager who besides one really interesting line about his Cold War idealogical interests in working with Fischer, mainly gets to join Lombardy in fretting about what crazy thing Fischer will do next. Both actors give perfectly fine performances, but they're mainly present to exhibit the same feelings the viewer already has for Fischer. And then there's Fischer's main competitor, the Russian Grandmaster Boris Spassky, but he barely gets but a few lines of dialogue in a performance by Liev Schreiber that's even more sterile than his turn in Spotlight

Despite its dramatic shortcomings, though, I do think it's an absorbing film in terms of its historical context. If there's a virtue to its heavy reliance on the paranoid nature of Fischer, it's that this is set in the heart of the Cold War, when paranoia was a common feeling amidst the American people. Fischer's anxieties about wire-tapping and his crazy fears about Russians monitoring him with chips in his teeth or through his TV screen can get downright creepy at times, and the way the film constantly presses these problems gives it at times the feeling of a good thriller. 

Had he lived in a different time period, Fischer would have undoubtedly experienced similar issues only with different targets to aim them towards. But because paranoia was especially pertinent during his time, it makes his problems more interesting, almost as if he's a microcosm of the Cold War mindset as a whole. And when Marshall talks about Fischer, a poor kid from Brooklyn, defeating the Russians, you get the sense that the movie's about something larger than one person and his skill at a game. The strategy, the manipulation, the trickery that came into play on both sides during the war is exactly what's going on in the game of chess. Because Fischer's genius and his instability keeps him from becoming a psychologically compelling character, and because I left the film with no greater knowledge of the game of chess than when I went into it, I'm inclined to see Pawn Sacrifice more as a cold war thriller than biography of an American icon. And that, I think, is a good thing.

I was initially surprised to learn that Edward Zwick, a director largely known for historical actioners with political undertones, would be taking on a movie about Bobby Fischer. But when you see the way he and writer Steven Knight frame this telling of the tortured genius, it's the history and the politics that end up mattering more than the genius, and you realize Zwick wasn't such an odd choice after all. 

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