Chess Biopic a Duffer

Pawn Sacrifice
(USA, 114 min.)
Dir. Edward Zwick, Writ. Steven Knight
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Live Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Evelyne Brochu
Liev Schreiber and Toby Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice.
Elevation Pictures.

Here’s a metaphor: chess—a battle of the minds. Take two brilliant opponents and put them in opposition across a game board. Give them black and white pieces to signify their different characters and philosophies, and then have them do intellectual combat piece by piece until only one king stands.

Been there, done that!

Pawn Sacrifice nobly attempts to dramatize a landmark chess game between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the USSR’s Boris Spassky (Live Schreiber), but its entire dramatic thrust hinges on one of the most tired clichés in the movies. A roster of the most riveting chess games could easily populate a decent clickable Buzzfeed feature or a Blog TO listicle cranked out between “Top Ten Sammiches in Guy Movies” and “6 Movies at TIFF with French People.” (Oh, look, people already did that for the best and worst chess scenes in movies.) It’s tired.

This straightforward biopic doesn’t bring the battle, though, since the script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) struggles to make the soldiers equally primed for battle. There isn’t much tension aside from what the film tells the audience. One doesn’t feel the rivalry or, for that matter, the shrewd intelligence on both sides of the board. Pawn Sacrifice is a one-sided game and its 7leaves one approaching the battle thinking, “So what?”

Bobby Fischer gets a warts and all treatment as Maguire, who is over a decade older than the 29-year-old Fischer he plays, portrays a twitchy and paranoid Fischer. Fischer is obsessed with the Russians, presumably because, as the film reveals in its brief look at the chess player’s childhood, his mommy was a Commie and her gentlemen callers distracted him from playing with the bishop. Cold War fears build as Fischer grows up to become the top player in the word, but the Cold War also happens on the chess board as the Russians stall and force matches into draws, which thwarts Fischer from officially rising to the top.

Pawn Sacrifice does an excellent job of connecting brilliance and mental illness as Fischer’s obsession to be the best at this game brings a concurrent thread of madness and paranoia. The side effects amplify as the importance of the games mounts. Fischer thinks that bugs are everywhere and conveying his every word to Russian spies. His rising star status also brings unexpected delusions of grandeur, for Fischer thinks he’s the king of the ring and thus deserves more outrageous demands than any A-list diva could muster. The film delivers this divide of brilliance and madness quite effectively during the initial chess games of Fischer’s climactic twenty-game match with Spassky as Maguire whirls his head on a swivel and bulges his eyes. Fischer’s paranoia feels real. It itches mania and Pawn Sacrifice makes audiences shift in the seats as the hero’s obvious illness shows desperate signs that he needs help even though he’s gearing up for a big moment in history.

Why this match matters so much, however, doesn’t flesh itself out as powerfully. Pawn Sacrifice makes it clear that the grudge match between Fischer and Spassky is a symbolic butting of heads between USA and Russia, but the film fails to illuminate why the chess game specifically is interesting enough to fuel a film. Pawn Sacrifice ends with a title card proclaiming the sixth game of Fischer’s match with Spassky to be the best game of chess in history, but the film shows very little of the actual chess playing. Zwick mostly gives the audience reaction shots of Maguire and Schreiber and cheesy music as the characters move their pieces on the board. The film is also dark and unattractively shot (the usually reliable Bradford Young makes the palette a bit too murky here) with dank visuals obscuring the emotion. What transpires on the chess board remains a mystery—or unintelligible for viewers less versed in chess-ese—aside from a few comments by the amiable peanut gallery played by Peter Sarsgaard (great in a small role) and Michael Stuhlbarg as Fischer’s coaches and allies. Bob Cole’s hockey games have more energy and clarity.

It’s a pity that the main event is an overhyped bore, for some of the chess matches that precede it have the tempo and energy of a boxing match in Southpaw. Expertly paced and cut, some earlier chess matches hint at the passion and mania within each man as they advance their armies for the fight. The quick cuts back to their coaches/friends in the wings add to the energy by doubling the verve to convey the greater significance at hand in the game.

What the film does for Fischer, though, it fails to do for Spassky. Pawn Sacrifice provides little depth to the character (although Schreiber wears his fatigue and intelligence rather well), so the matches aren’t so much a face off as a bridge to a foregone conclusion. The film’s all about Bobby. Fischer, on the other hand, isn’t an especially likable or compelling character despite the tragic repercussions that his strategizing has on his mind. He’s an ass and a jerk. He treats people coldly and unfairly, especially his mother (Robin Weigert), who first nurtured his interest in the game.

Pawn Sacrifice, moreover, falters notably in the roles it assigns to women. The film has three female roles and they’re literally a mother, a sister, and a hooker. It’s problematic to say the least. But two are played by Canadians, Sophie Nélisse (the younger sister) and Evelyne Brochu (the hooker), so at least it gets something right.

Pawn Sacrifice has the elements for riveting drama, but this game isn’t it, for the film struggles to engage the mind as the players run the gauntlet of the intelligentsia’s favourite sport. The film mostly relies on one’s admiration for Fischer as an American hero and icon, and this unlikable rendering strains his underdog status to the limits. As far as biopics go, Pawn Sacrifice is, as the chess players might say, a bit of a duffer.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Pawn Sacrifice opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 25.