Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice

Year: 2015
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Plot: The true story of Bobby Fischer, the American chess prodigy and his landmark chess match against world champion Boris Spassky in 1972.

Review: I know too little about chess other than the basic rules, so the true story of Bobby Fischer's rivalry with Russian world champion Boris Spassky is lost on me. But thanks to Pawn Sacrifice, the film that focuses on this story, I know a little more.

The key of making a story like this great is to make it appeal to a wider audience, which includes both fans and non-fans of chess. So it is to director Edward Zwick's credit that his film turned out to be quite appealing to this movie reviewer.

Pawn Sacrifice traces the life of Bobby Fischer, a poor kid from Brooklyn who became a chess master at a young age and went on to face the Russians in a chess tournament. However he became convinced that the Russian players were all cheating and threatened to quit chess for good, until a lawyer named Paul Marshall, who says he can "make things happen", convinces him to change his mind. With Paul and his old friend Father Bill Lombardy by his side, Bobby goes back to the board and earns himself a match against world champion Boris Spassky, at a time when the Cold War is raging on.

In this film, Zwick focuses on two things: Bobby's chess match with Spassky, and his life, particularly his mental problems. While Bobby is an incomparable chess genius, at the same time he was incredibly paranoid, constantly thinking he's being followed or spied on by the Russians. Zwick and writer Steven Knight imply that this is caused by the mathematical complexity of chess, showing what it does not just to Bobby's mind, but Spassky's as well, though of course the focus is more on the former. Zwick's film shows the audience how Bobby's obsession of chess takes him to great heights in the chess world, and how it eventually breaks his mind down. He and Knight deserve praise for keeping the flow of the story smooth and not wasting time with unnecessary melodrama.

Tobey Maguire is quite good here as Bobby, convincingly portraying a man who's great at what he does but is slowly being pushed towards the edge of his sanity. At his best, he's constantly playing chess games in his head, at his worst he's tearing up the room looking for listening devices that aren't there. Maguire may seem to be overdoing it when he's acting in a rage, but otherwise he's spot on. Peter Sarsgaard represents the sane friend that we need in our lives and in this case, Bobby's life. As Father Billy, Bobby's friend who knows chess almost as good as he does, Sarsgaard is solid here, being the voice of reason and probably the only person who understands what the man is going through. Michael Stuhlbarg also excels as Paul, who claims to be a patriot serving his country by having Bobby put America back on the world map after the humiliation of Vietnam, but not really understanding what he's getting Bobby into once the mental problems get worse. Liev Schreiber speaks mostly Russian in his role as Spassky, and to his credit, makes him just as interesting as Bobby, though much more in control of things. It's a pity he is overshadowed by Bobby's story, as a take on his point of view of the chess game would be very welcome.

Speaking of the chess match itself, which happens in the final third of the film, it proves to be both funny and engaging at the same time. One wonders if what Zwick presents here actually happened back then.

The main flaw of the film is the abrupt ending to the story once the match is over. It seems that Zwick and Knight were only interested in Bobby's journey up to that match, filling the rest of his life with words before the credits roll. Because of this, Bobby's biography feels incomplete, though logically, Zwick can't afford more time without making it seem too long. But just saying, it would have been nice to be able to see it.

Overall, this is a solid outing for Zwick, though not as compelling as his other films like Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. It's worth watching for sure. (7/10)

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