I am not particularly good at chess – I don’t have the discipline to study complex openings and embrace the meta-strategy of the game. I do, however, have the utmost admiration for those who excel at it, and who are able to visualize thousands upon thousands of possible patterns and outcomes before they unfold. From where I’m standing, that kind of mental juggling is enough to drive anyone insane.
And indeed, that is precisely the territory that “Pawn Sacrifice” probes.
“Pawn Sacrifice” is the story of international chess superstar Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and his much-publicized match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). More compellingly, however, “Pawn Sacrifice” chronicles Fischer’s slow downward slide into paranoia and schizophrenia…illnesses that lurk beneath the surface of Fischer’s arrogant, larger-than-life personality. This side of Fischer unfolds through turbulent relationships with his trainer Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and government handler Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg): underneath Fischer’s ridiculous rock-star demands, a deeply troubled psyche continues to crumble.
It’s all very interesting material, much of which I’d never really heard before. That being said, director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai,” “Glory”) lacks the bravura to lift “Pawn Sacrifice” into Oscar territory. What unfolds onscreen is heavily plot-centric (“X occurred at Y location on Z date, which we must depict”) rather than character-centric. It’s really a shame, because Fischer is a fascinating tragic figure who doesn’t get quite the attention he deserves. In Zwick’s haste to situate the film historically (“America versus the Soviet Union!”), “Pawn Sacrifice” comes off more as a chess-themed version of “Rocky” or “Miracle” than as a study of insanity and genius. One is left thinking that perhaps Darren Aronofsky or David Cronenberg would’ve brought a suitably terrifying intensity to the project…and a glimpse into Fischer’s tormented mind. But “Pawn Sacrifice” is aimed at mainstream audiences (my “edgier,” Fischer-centric proposed approach would definitely lack the appeal of Zwick’s version), and works as an engagingly atypical “sports movie” of sorts.
None of this is to suggest that “Pawn Sacrifice” is a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly memorable movie. The third act is suitably nail-biting (even for those who know how things ended up, historically speaking). In the lead role, Maguire is satisfyingly unhinged as Fischer, channeling no one so much as his own dark Peter Parker side a la “Spider-Man 3.” Schreiber brings a suitable gravitas to his turn as Spassky, and the final chess scenes are charged with a frenetic intensity.
Is it worth seeing? For sports film fans looking for a drama that trades in brainpower rather than testosterone, “Pawn Sacrifice” delivers. Those hoping for a slightly more off-kilter approach to the movie’s subject matter, however, must look elsewhere.
An engaging, if sometimes sports-movie formulaic, historical drama.
Normalized Score: 2.4