The Cold War was not a fun era, what with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, McCarthyism, the Berlin wall, and the Vietnam War. However, there is something to be said for having an arch-enemy, and patriotism never meant as much in this country as it did during the Cold War when we had an entire social, political, and economic ideology to rally against. The 1980’s “Miracle on Ice,” for instance, meant a lot more to America because we weren’t just underdogs beating another team at hockey; we were kicking Soviet ass! Because of the politically-charged atmosphere, there was a heightened quality to the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and we were never as invested in the outcomes as we were then.
It’s against that backdrop — and perhaps, it’s the only backdrop in which it could ever happen — that chess suddenly because a really big deal in 1972. The Soviets had been dominating the “sport” for decades, with a Russian holding the World Championship title dating back to 1948. The latest was a man named Boris Spassky, who’d held the title since 1968 and had never lost to Bobby Fischer, a Brooklyn kid with a bit of a screw loose.
You couldn’t ask for a better story: The self-taught, spunky American Dream vs. the Soviet Bully! Like soccer does every few years, chess captured the American imagination so much so that people actually watched chess on television, which is even more insane than the brief period a decade ago when Americans in droves watched televised poker.
But here’s the thing about Pawn Sacrifice, the Bobby Fischer biopic starring Tobey Maguire, which tracks Fischer from the time he’s a young boy until the 1972 World Championship: When it’s focused on the chess, it’s a fascinating, engaging film, and Maguire and Liev Schrieber (playing Spasky) convey lengthy monologues in stare downs.
Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight, however, are more interested in the exploring the mental deterioration of Fischer, and while that is intermittently fascinating, it’s mostly tedious and repetitive. Maguire must have uttered some variation of “the Russians and the Jews are out to get me” ten or 12 times during the film, while checking for bugs in phones, in picture frames, or underneath chairs. Zwick too often belabors the point, and in doing so, slows any momentum the film can gain on its way to and through the ‘72 Championship.
It doesn’t help that Fischer was an unlikable person upon which to base the character. As he is depicted in the film, it’s hard for post-Cold War era audiences not to have some sympathy for Boris Spassky, whose only “character defect” is being a Soviet (in fact, after the film, the first person I Wiki’d was Spassky, because I was far more interested in his life post-1972 than in Fischer’s). Take the politics out of the equation, and we’re probably rooting for Spassky over the unhinged Fischer, who spends almost the entire movie either staring off into space or exploding with rage at the few people who can stomach to be around him (his lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg), his mother (Robin Weigert), his sister (Lily Rabe) and a priest (Peter Sarsgaard). The film moves in fits and starts, from exciting chess matches to almost banal backroom meltdowns designed for Maguire’s Oscar reel.
However, if there’s anything to take away from the film, besides the fact that Fischer was a paranoid dick, it’s that chess can wreak havoc on the mind. So consumed by the game, Fischer never developed adequate social skills. His ego was so inflated, he refused to concede that another player was better than him, choosing instead to believe that the Russians and Jews were out to get him. In short, he went mad, but as depicted in Pawn Sacrifice, his journey toward madness was much less interesting than his journey through the game of chess.