Bobby Fischer Against the World

It's hard to believe that 40 years ago, with Vietnam, Watergate and other lasting headlines vying for attention, people around the globe stood in thrall to chess.

'Bobby Fischer Against the World'

It’s hard to believe that 40 years ago, with Vietnam, Watergate and other lasting headlines vying for attention, people around the globe stood in thrall to chess, a game that never raised its profile so high before or since. “Bobby Fischer Against the World” chronicles that curious moment, as much tied to Cold War politics as the life of its titular American champion. Slightly hobbled by an unlikable protagonist, vet documentarian Liz Garbus’ engrossing account will air on HBO this summer, and will attract broadcast sales worldwide.

Opening flurry of headlines, TV news and chatshow clips gauges the extent to which the “Match of the Century” between Fischer and reigning Soviet champ Boris Spassky held the collective imagination during their 1972 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. The improbable craze for this brainiac pastime coincided with a period in which America doubted its self-image; having a native son rout the Russkies from a title they’d seemed to own was just the ticket to boost confidence.

Fischer was in many ways not an ideal hero in that scenario. He and a sister were raised by a Jewish Russian-emigre single mother the FBI for a time suspected of being a spy, and for whom parenting was prioritized far behind political activism. Isolation and neglect at an early age seeded Bobby’s lifelong suspiciousness and poor social skills. (It’s also noted here that great chess players often have been associated with mental illness, or at least strange behavior.)

Nonetheless, in the voluminous archival footage tapped here, Fischer seemed at least somewhat comfortable with the public attention his extraordinary skill attracted from an early age. (He began playing at six and was U.S. champion by 15.)

Fischer was already known to cancel matches for arbitrary reasons before the Spassky event was orchestrated. Until the last second, it was unclear if the young American would show up; upon finally doing so, he banned TV cameras and spectators from the playing room.

After a shaky start — Fischer lost the first game due to a colossal blunder — he rebounded with a vengeance, until his unnerved opponent resigned the final game of the match by telephone.

The triumph only made Fischer’s subsequent demands for money and playing conditions more impossible. He also began spouting paranoid drivel about the “international Jewish conspiracy.” His reclusive retirement was broken by a surprise 1992 rematch with Spassky that most observers considered sadly anticlimactic. It was held in Yugoslavia during the civil war there, blatantly violating U.N. embargo. Facing criminal prosecution at home as a result, Fischer drifted, finally resettling in Iceland, where he alienated friends and colleagues well before his death in 2008, preventable had he not refused dialysis.

Pic is a fascinating if rather depressing tale with a largely unknowable misanthrope and narcissist at its center. Interviewees, from chess experts to Henry Kissinger, add valuable commentary. But it’s a pity there’s no footage of Fischer’s late sole sibling Joan, perhaps the one person who could have had offered real personal insight on the subject.

Assembly is brisk and high-grade, allowing for the variable quality of archival materials. T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong” is overused as musical motif for the giddy media circus of 1972’s events.

Bobby Fischer Against the World

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with LM Media of a Moxiefirecracker production. Produced by Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, Stanley Buchthal, Matthew Justus. Executive producers, Dan Cogan, Nick Fraser, Maja Hoffman, Martin Pieper, Sheila Nevins. Directed by Liz Garbus.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Robert Chappell; editors, Karen Schmeer, Michael Levine; music, Philip Sheppard; sound recordists, Arni Gustafsson, Steve Haywood, Mark Maloof, Matt Sutton; re-recording mixer, Bill Marino; sound editors, Neil Cedar, James Redding III. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2011. Running time: 92 MIN.
  • With: With: Malcolm Gladwell, Henry Kissinger, Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Anthony Saidy, Shelby Lyman, Russell Targ, Susan Polgar, Saemi Palsson, Gudmundur Thorarinsson, Lothar Schmid, David Edmonds, David Shenk. (English and Russian dialogue)