The moves are none too surprising but the psychological back-and-forth still compels attention in “Pawn Sacrifice,” director Edward Zwick’s conventionally well-crafted dramatization of the life of Bobby Fischer. Revisiting that astonishing moment when a world reeling from Vietnam and Watergate was held spellbound by an epic, emblematic 1972 chess match between Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, this straightforward but focused biopic doesn’t crack the mystery of the mentally troubled misanthrope who became the game’s greatest player, though Tobey Maguire’s angry, bristling lead performance does capture the man’s outsized personality in spades. An elegant if unrevealing title and the somewhat rarefied historical material may keep broad audience exposure at bay, but an enterprising distrib could court discerning grown-up interest.
Effectively a fictionalized companion piece to Liz Garbus’ 2011 documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” Steven Knight’s screenplay is structured around an event that, rather remarkably, has never furnished a dramatic feature film before. Amid escalating Cold War tensions, the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik — dubbed “the Match of the Century” by observers — took on enormous symbolic importance, pitting the plucky, unpredictable American challenger against the indomitable Soviet powerhouse in a definitive test of superpower strength (this phenomenon, as it applied to ice hockey, was recently explored by Gabe Polsky’s documentary, “Red Army”).
While that 21-game match-up will occupy much of the film’s latter half, Zwick and Knight spend the early going deftly moving their pieces into position, so to speak, employing two younger actors (Aiden Lovekamp, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) to portray Bobby during his boyhood and teenage years in New York. During this time he immediately demonstrates a talent for chess, nurtured by his encouraging first teacher, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla). His brilliant intellect and passion for the game bring out a ferocious level of personal dedication and competitive instinct, which translate as hostility toward anyone he perceives as a distraction from his goal, including his neglectful single mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), whom he comes to resent for her steady stream of lovers and refusal to tell him who his biological father is.
These and many other challenging aspects of Fischer’s upbringing are mostly glossed over here, and the degree to which they shaped his identity — whether his mother’s own communist activism contributed to his extreme anti-Russian paranoia, for example — is never fully spelled out. The cause receives far less emphasis here the effect, and by the time Fischer (now played by Maguire) storms out of the 1962 Chess Olympiad in Varna, Bulgaria, blasting the Soviets for having allegedly colluded against him, he is a man fully formed in all his stubbornness, arrogance and eccentricity, a man who is determined to become the world’s greatest player and who utterly refuses to play according to any rules except his own.
Helping to steer his chess career back on course are Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), a patriotic lawyer who sees Fischer’s potential as a symbol of American might, and William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Catholic priest and chess grandmaster who coached him when he was younger. Together these two loyal, long-suffering supporters do what they can to ensure that the temperamental, unpredictable Fischer stays grounded and focused on the game, especially after he records his first loss to Spassky (Liev Schreiber) at the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup tournament in Santa Monica. But a rematch looms six years later in Reykjavik, where Fischer, now a beloved figure in American culture who has graced magazine covers and been courted by Mike Wallace, becomes determined to win the world championship.
Even attentive viewers won’t learn too much about how to play chess like a champ in “Pawn Sacrifice,” though Zwick does what he can to render an inherently uncinematic activity onscreen in as stimulating a manner as possible, focusing compulsively on shots of the players clicking their game clocks back and forth, the pieces shifting forward one move at a time (sometimes in dramatic black-and-white inserts). Scenes of Fischer and Lombardy running through practice games in their heads, rapidly reciting board moves at each other, convey merely a hint of the mental agility required to understand the game in all its permutations and possibilities, let alone to master it. Absent the ability to really get the audience’s heads in the game, the film succeeds better at presenting chess as a subtle metaphor for the psychological warfare being waged behind the scenes.
Both Lombardy and Marshall absorb and apply the real-life lessons of the game to some degree, realizing that it takes careful maneuvering to control Fischer and figuratively keep him in check. As shown during his long Reykjavik rematch with Spassky, Fischer makes all manner of increasingly outrageous demands — for instance, that the games be played in a small rec room in the basement, away from the noise of the cameras and the distractions of the audience. He also becomes more twitchy and irrational than ever, spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (ironic, considering Fischer was Jewish himself) and tearing his room and telephone apart in search of the bugging devices he’s convinced the Soviets have placed there. Is he a lunatic? Or are his actions a brilliant means of unsettling his opponent, of putting him on the defensive and forcing him to react, which Fischer well knows is the only way to beat the Russians and their impeccable chess training?
In any event, the sheer accrual of madly unpredictable chess strategies (which ultimately drove Fischer’s victory) and oddball, did-that-really-happen details — as when Spassky, seemingly absorbing some of his opponent’s paranoia, suspects that his swivel chair has been tampered with — commands a procedural fascination that propels interest through the climactic faceoff. The film wraps up with an expectedly neat summation of Bobby Fischer’s unmatched legacy in the chess world as well as his sad, mysterious decline in the years leading up to his death in 2008, accompanied by old video clips of the real Fischer that match the deliberately grainy, old-fashioned faux-’60s and ’70s footage inserted into the film throughout.
Production designer Isabelle Guay’s period re-creations are subtle and hemmed-in, befitting a picture where most of the action unfolds in fairly nondescript rooms; apart from some moody shots of the Icelandic coast, d.p. Bradford Young’s lensing mostly follows suit. The focus here is squarely on the performances, chiefly Maguire’s ravaged, belligerent, frequently off-putting embodiment of a man whose undeniable brilliance seems to have swallowed up his every social grace and kindly impulse. Providing a crucial element of dramatic modulation and comic relief, Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg give warm, wry performances as Fischer’s devoted if frequently exasperated supporting duo. In a film that doesn’t pretend to strive for balance between the American and Soviet sides, Schreiber’s presence nonetheless brings a crucial measure of sympathy and humanity to the role of a formidable chess player who, by the closing reels, simply doesn’t know what hit him.