Pawn Sacrifice Review: A Riveting Cold War Thriller
Bobby Fischer was a genius, a childhood prodigy who took the chess world by storm in the second half of the twentieth century. Fischer was also maddeningly erratic, possibly insane, and a fervent anti-Semite. Hollywood stalwart Edward Zwick (Glory, The Siege) and venerated screenwriter Steven Knight bring Fischer's story to life in Pawn Sacrifice. Set against the backdrop of The Cold War, Pawn Sacrifice details the events behind the world chess championship in 1972. Where Russian Grandmaster Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer played what is considered the greatest chess match of all time.
Pawn Sacrifice begins in the early 1950's during McCarthyism, The Red Scare. Fischer (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) was obsessed with chess as a child. His mother (Robin Weigert) supported her son's ambition, but she was a diehard communist and constantly watched by the government. As Fischer (Tobey Maguire) grew to young adulthood, he had soundly beaten everyone who faced him in chess. He set his sights on the grandmasters. Flying around the world, embarrassing them with his skill, and offending everyone with his arrogant personality.
By the sixties, Fischer was widely respected as the best American player. But he had a formidable obstacle in his way to being the world's undisputed champion - Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). The United States and Russia were engaged in a global conflict for ideological supremacy. Chess, the thinking man's game, was dominated by Spassky and the Russians. Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) was an agent and lawyer tasked by the US government to bring Fischer into the fold. They wanted the Russians beaten by an American. But Fischer's behavior was so bizarre and demanding, Marshall enlisted a childhood rival of Fischer's, Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard); who had entered the seminary and become a priest. Both men struggled to deal with Fischer's unpredictable nature, but they kept Boris Spassky square in his sights. Leading to an epic showdown at the world chess championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. With The Cold War at their backs, millions watching their every move, Fischer and Spassky struggle to overcome their demons. To play the game they both loved, and prove to each other who was the best.
Pawn Sacrifice is essentially a movie about chess. But it encompasses so many incredible variables. Edward Zwick sucks you into the dynamics of the era. Communism was the great evil, the Russians a bitter enemy to be defeated. Fischer was an egomaniac. He knew he was the best. America and Russian politics meant nothing to him. Only Spassky mattered. Spassky was equally a pawn of his country. His every move watched. His life dictated to him. These two men had to navigate a treacherous path to each other. Knight's script carefully weighs their burdens. They were a part of something much bigger. The way they handled these pressures was vastly different. While Spassky was quiet and introspective. Fischer was tyrannical and obtuse, a real challenge for the people around him. Despite all of the outside influences, it all came down down to playing a board game. Zwick strikes the perfect chord between the intellectual pursuit and the political thriller.
Pawn Sacrifice has an excellent cast. Tobey Maguire has his career best performance as Bobby Fischer. He is unlikeable, a real jerk, but his magnificent intellect and skill are admirable. Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg are fantastic in their supporting roles. They treat Fischer like dynamite. Handle him carefully, because he can explode in an instant. Liev Schreiber's Spassky looks like a beat poet. His calm demeanor and complete fascination at Fischer's antics are played with finesse. But Spassky also has a breaking point. The tension builds perfectly when Fischer finally unnerves Spassky. The ensemble actors are in tune with the material and adroitly pull off every scene.
Pawn Sacrifice is not a boring film. It's engaging on every level. It is a serious drama, with relatively no light moments, but an interesting story that captivates. You find yourself rooting for, but greatly disliking Bobby Fischer. He was a complex individual. Even if you have zero knowledge of chess, Pawn Sacrifice is more about personalities and the intrigue of The Cold War. Highly recommended.