*. You can understand why someone would have thought it was an interesting project. The Fischer-Spassky chess tournament was a very big deal in 1972, and a good book and a good documentary had recently come out on it. Then there’s the fact that Bobby Fischer was a nut, and they always play well in biopics. There were a number of fruitful angles to be explored here: mental health, politics, genius, celebrity.
*. Then there’s the fact that movies love dramatizing these classic battles of the titans. Pretty soon we’d be seeing Borg vs. McEnroe, Battle of the Sexes (Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King), Ford v Ferrari, and Godzilla vs. Kong. Pawn Sacrifice was at the start of all this.
*. But there were hurdles to overcome. How was Fischer’s fragile and paranoid mental state going to be presented? And how do you make a chess tournament interesting in such a format? The classic games go on for hours, with little action and moves that a general audience even well versed in chess can’t be expected to understand.
*. Pawn Sacrifice can’t solve either of these problems, and manages to add some new ones all its own. First off there’s the casting. Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer? Anthony Hopkins was more believable as Nixon. Yes Maguire is game, but he’s just not the thing. He was a producer on the project though so I’m guessing it’s something he really wanted to do.
*. Liev Schreiber actually does look a bit like Boris Spassky, and apparently even spoke his own Russian lines, but the cool shades kind of lost me. Were they there to make him seem more villainous? Because wasn’t the real Spassky a more sympathetic figure?
*. Alas, movies about high-level competition need conflict. So we even get an imaginary scene on a Californian beach where Fischer yells at Spassky and his Kremlin handlers “I’m coming for you! I’m coming for you!” Yeah! And as the crowd cheers in the auditorium and around the world at Fischer’s beautiful game 6 (even Spassky himself applauded Fischer) we can almost hear the chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
*. Apparently the title comes from the idea that both Fischer and Spassky were “pawns of their nation” (director Edward Zwick), fighting the Cold War by proxy. This is another angle that is briefly suggested (a phone call to Bobby from Kissinger, for example) but it doesn’t make Pawn Sacrifice a political movie. Although given Fischer’s own paranoid thoughts on political matters any such message would be problematic anyway.
*. So it’s one of those movies that must have seemed a good idea at the time but which turned out to be very difficult to realize. On top of that, Maguire wasn’t right for the part, they make almost no attempt to explain or even represent the chess being played, and the politics comes down to the usual us vs. them stuff. I’m not sure it would have worked even if the stars were in alignment, and in this case they weren’t.