More noise than signal

Pawn Sacrifice

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

It’s hard to fathom, given the ever declining attention spans that the modern world tends to encourage, but once the world paid rapt attention to televised chess matches between the dominant Russian grandmasters and the young upstart American Bobby Fischer as he sought to challenge them. The seventies are a foreign country, they do things differently there, and it’s generally some kind of cold war proxy.

Pawn Sacrifice, a film made in 2014 which sat on a shelf for a year before a US release, and then another two before appearing in the UK, which tends not to be a great sign, dramatizes the story of aforementioned Bobby Fischer, as he grows from a youngling with a raw talent for the game, to a young man with a formidable genius for chess, but with equally formidable personal problems, including a paranoia that will eventually be his ruin.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer as an adult, prodded into mounting a serious challenge to the Russian team by lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s seconded by William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), one of the few American players he seems to have any respect for, and sets about preparing for and beating the chess out of the Russian team, with his sights set on end boss Boris Spassky, played here by Liev Schreiber.

And so it goes, although for obvious reasons it’s a little more concerned with the deterioration of Fischer’s mental state than his genius for the game, probably because it’s not obvious as to what’s a genius move in chess unless you’re also close to a genius level yourself. I know the rudiments of the game, but if it weren’t for Schrieber’s raised eyebrows I couldn’t tell you the difference between a question mark exclamation point and a exclamation point question mark. Little chess notation joke for you there. Sure that’s widely applicable to everyone listening out there. Strong demographic correlation. Tested well in focus groups.

So, while there’s no minimising his talent here, the bulk of the drama comes from Tobey Maguire frantically disassembling phone receivers looking for Russian listening devices, and it’s largely downhill from there. Of course, the thing of it is that being spied on is not an entirely unrealistic expectation given the geopolitical proxying going on at the time.

I guess about five or six years ago I watched a documentary going round the festival circuit, Bobby Fischer vs. the World, which had a very similar focus to this film, and if my memory serves I think I preferred that to this. I don’t have a very strong reason for that view, really, as Pawn Sacrifice is also a perfectly acceptable film, with perfectly acceptable performances, particularly from Maguire and Schriber in the final confrontations.

There’s a few things that stops this being entirely successful, particularly because there’s no way it’s thought of to really get across the nuances of what makes a chess game great, other than cutting back to an excited looking Sarsgaard explaining it to Stuhlbarg, which works well enough I suppose, but it’s not hugely cinematic. I’m not saying I’ve got an answer for that conundrum, but, well, I’m not the fella putting chess in front of modern cinema audiences.

And, well, I don’t know how someone who had not been keeping up to date with Fischer’s life story will approach it, but if you do know that the ending is in no way happy, you may wonder how the film will send you home with a song in your heart. It very much does not. Indeed, the abrupt drop off from Fischer’s moment of triumph to the text describing his ultimate end game leaves as bad a taste in the mouth as the credits roll as any film I can think of.

Pawn Sacrifice is a decent enough film, and it’s well made, with a talented cast. It’s just taking a difficult subject to make an entertaining film out of, and not quite meeting that goal. It seems a story altogether better suited to a documentarian format. There’s still an audience for this, but it’s certainly not a wide one. Chess fans? Those with a particular interest in the period and the politics? Those looking for a portrait of declining mental health? Only the intersection of all of those sets? I’m not sure. It’s a solid film, but I’m not sure who’ll appreciate it best.

I’m afraid there’s no solid conclusion to this review, which I shall blame on the flu, but, well, if you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like.