“Pawn Sacrifice” is now playing at Sundance, Point and Palace Cinemas. PG-13, 1:54, three stars out of four.
Two guys in suits stare at a wooden board may not be the most cinematic of circumstances. So the “Pawn Sacrifice” makes the safe and smart decision to spend as little time on the chess pieces as possible, instead focusing on the minds of the players.
And, in the case of Bobby Fischer, there is plenty to focus on.
The erratic chess genius would destroy his opponents in matches — when one walks away dazed in defeat, his coach says “We’ll have the team doctor examine you.” In interviews, he would boast of savoring the moment when he would “break the ego” of his opponent, playing the personal of the cocky kid from Brooklyn to the hilt. But Fischer was also paranoid and unhinged, fleeing matches if the slightest thing was amiss, growing increasingly convinced that the Russians were bugging his phone and even plotting an assassination attempt.
It was this guy, of all people, that America, mired in Vietnam and looking for a win, pinned its hopes on when Fischer played Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972. Thus, the suspense from “Pawn Sacrifice” comes not primarily whether Fischer will win the match, but whether he can even get to the match in one piece.
This makes for a film with the contours of a sports movie — complete with shots of ordinary Americans glued to their TV screens — but the depth of a character study. That approach, from director Ed Zwick (“Glory”) and screenwriter Steven Knight (“Locke”), is helped immeasurably by the bravura performance of Tobey Maguire as Fischer. Maguire makes Fischer boldly unlikable, quick to fly into fits of petulant rage, sleeping in his clothes, unaware how to relate to any other human being except as an opponent. But Maguire also shows us how much of a prisoner Maguire is to his mental illness, and how chess, which soothes him with its clear lines and rules, is also making him worse.
Maguire is surrounded by a great cast of character actors, especially Liev Schreiber as Spassky, the controlled and gentlemanly counterpoint to Fischer’s unhinged nervousness. (In one great joke, Spassky discovers that his hotel room actually IS bugged by the Russians.) Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) plays Fischer’s harried manager, and Peter Sarsgaard is a priest who I suppose passes for Fischer’s only friend, and some of the best scenes in the film don’t include Fischer at all, just these two worried men wondering how far Fischer can be pushed before he’ll break. “Without chess, he doesn’t exist,” Sarsgaard says.
Zwick propels the film forward with a canny mix of reenactments and archival footage, at one point convincingly putting Maguire’s Fischer next to 1971-era Dick Cavett for a memorable interview. And when Fischer finally does sit down for those matches against Spassky, he creates tension not from what’s happening on the board (we can’t follow the moves at all) but from the slight changes in expression on Maguire and Schreiber’s faces.
The film ends with a swift series of title cards and archival footage of the real Fischer, detailing his rapid decline after the 1972 match. It’s really unnecessary, because the story is all written on Maguire’s face in those final moments, and Fischer’s realization that, no matter what happens on the board, nothing really changes off the board.