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USA 2014
Directed by
Edward Zwick
116 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Pawn Sacrifice

In his day, which was the early 1970s, chess prodigy Bobby Fischer was a star along with the likes of American Olympic gold medallist Mark Spitz and Moon walking Neil Armstrong, emblems of American Cold War superiority over Russia.  His crowning glory came in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972 when he become the World Chess Champion by defeating the Russian Boris Spassky in a politically and ideologically-charged match. Thereafter his grip on reality became increasingly tenuous and he spiralled into paranoid isolation, eventually dying in Iceland in 2008 aged 64.

Fischer’s story was told in detail in Liz Garbus'  fine 2011 documentary, Bobby Fischer Against The World and here we have a dramatized version with Tobey Maguire in the Fischer role.  It is a story of dedication, obsession and mental collapse ably crafted by writer Steven Knight and director  Edward Zwick with a strong performance by Maguire, not usually known for dramatically-demanding roles, who was also a producer.  We get a sense of the tragedy of Fischer’s genius and the unstable times in which he lived, as the film flashes back and forward from a “present day” of 1972 as Fischer prepares to go up against Spassky in the World Championship, a grueling match which is the film’s centerpiece, to his origins in Brooklyn living with his slightly nutty single Leftist mother who put ideas about hidden conspiracies in Fischer’s head from a very early age.

It is a story of a mentally vulnerable individual who is helped to victory by a couple of managers, one, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), a successful music business attorney who takes on Fischer’s business affairs (perhaps, it is suggested, with American government  involvement),  the other, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) who is more concerned with Fischer’s emotional and mental survival.  The other player (to pun somewhat) of note is Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. This is odd casting because it leads us to expect a lot from the Spassky character when in fact he does very little but turn up periodically for a chessboard  joust with Fischer and make the occasional cutting observation in Russian.  A less-well known actor would have been better suited to the role.

Whilst clearly simplifying Fischer’s story for the big screen, Pawn Sacrifice is nevertheless an engaging film that balances fact and fiction with satisfying results.

Available from: Entertainment One




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