Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bobby Fischer's twisted world

Tobey Maguire portrays Bobby Fischer as a man caught in a propaganda war between the U.S. and the Soviets.
I'm not a chess enthusiast, so I can't totally appreciate Bobby Fischer's accomplishments at the chess board. From what I've read, it seems Fischer was a genius when it came to chess and reprehensible in many other ways: a Jew who became a vocal antisemite, a demanding diva of the chess world who never appreciated those who helped him and a competitor so ruthless, he might have made Donald Trump cringe.

The new movie Pawn Sacrifice provides a look at Fischer's development as a chess virtuoso, but gathers most of its steam by focusing on the 1972 match between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

If you're looking for a documentary approach to Fischer's life, you may want to try Liz Garbus' 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. If you're looking for a movie that builds tension without a deluge of pyrotechnics, director Edward Zwick's often intense Pawn Sacrifice should do the trick.

Two young actors (Aiden Lovekamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) portray Fischer as a self-contained kid who was put off by the lifestyle of his single mother (Robin Weigert).

Weigert's Regina Fischer's devotion to sexual freedom and communism -- beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s -- may have inspired Fischer's abiding contempt for the Soviet Union. For him, the political and personal seem to have merged.

Maguire takes over the role as Fischer approaches adulthood, and begins to establish himself as a world-class player.

No stranger to controversy, Fischer walked out on matches, accused the Soviets of conspiring to keep him from taking the world title in 1962 and became increasingly adept at making sure the world understood that he made no bows to convention.

Along the way, two men take an interest in Fischer's career. The always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, a lawyer who believed in Fischer and who also saw the symbolic value in using Fischer to make an anti-Soviet statement. If Fischer could beat the Soviets at a game they cherished, he'd serve as living proof that the Communist system had failed.

That may seem a bit far-fetched today, but it perfectly reflects the heated logic of a Cold War period steeped in mistrust and mutual hostility and in which both the Soviets and the U.S. were hungry for symbolic triumphs.

Peter Sarsgaard proves equally good as William Lombardy, a chess grandmaster and Catholic priest who coached Fischer and who, in this telling, understands that there's more to life than chess games.

Zwick sets up the international dynamics of the Fischer/Spassky match in ways that insure that the chess scenes have augmented force.

When Fischer arrives in Reykjavik, Iceland, for his fateful match with Spassky -- actually the second time the two had squared off -- he begins making demands. He refuses to play in front of an audience, insists on preternatural quiet (even the hum of cameras was too noisy for him) and expresses a deep paranoia about everything the Soviets might be doing, including bugging his hotel room.

Throughout these scenes, Maguire never shrinks from making Fischer semi-intolerable, a man whose indifference to what others think borders on the pathological.

The movie's exceptionally able cast handles the story in convincing fashion, although we don't get much about the reclusive but vitriolic latter days of Fischer's life. He died in 2008.

Still, Zwick effectively tailors the drama to accommodate both the personal and geopolitical levels of Fischer's story. He also made me think another movie might be in order, the one in which Schreiber again plays Spassky, and we see the story from the Russian master's point of view.

No comments: