Pawn Sacrifice, the latest biopic centered on a brilliant but unstable individual, captures an interesting period in American history. During the Cold War, central character Bobby Fischer was just as much a pawn as any of his eight chess pieces. Paranoia ran rampant throughout the United States. Any opportunity to prove some sort of superiority over the Russians was taken. With a paranoid leader in office, it was somewhat fitting that a paranoid genius was used as an ideological weapon against the Russians. Instead of fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, this particular war of opposing ideologies was fought between chess prodigies.
There’s no doubt that the events depicted in this film could make for a fascinating story. It’s all the more disappointing that Pawn Sacrifice skims over the complexities of Fischer in favor of paint-by-numbers biopic storytelling. We definitely see that Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) was not in a strong mental state. He’s particular about his food and was not one to avoid negative accusations against the Russians. There are scenes depicting characters questioning Fischer’s condition. The chess matches between Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) are periphery for the most part. The film focuses much more on Fischer’s personal troubles.
Throughout the first half of the film, director Ed Zwick does an admirable job of exposing Fischer’s fragility. We get to see his obsessive tendencies and feel uneasy when Fischer experiences one of his episodes. There are some effective editing techniques and cuts to various sources of conflict like tapping pencils and disruptive coughs. Some of these scenes reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which focused on tortured genius Howard Hughes. The problem is that the movie constantly plays that one move over and over. It definitely reinforces his beliefs of paranoia but it’s at the expense of cinematic storytelling. Apart from the last match with Spassky, we don’t really get to see Fischer’s strategic genius as a chess player. His chess successes are reduced to mere montages or aren’t shown at all. After the first hour, his erratic breakdowns become monotonous and repetitive.
What the film lacks in substance is made up for with the performances. Despite limited direction and beats, Tobey Maguire does some excellent work here. Fischer was anything but humble about his abilities and his opponents. Maguire, who rarely gets to showcase unlikable traits, sells the brash and arrogant side of Fischer. At the same time, his performance works best when it’s subtle and unhinged. There’s a scene that takes place after Fischer lost to Spassky in California. Fischer exits the match in a strange manner and then later yells at Spassky on the beach. Spassky looked as puzzled as I was watching.
For an actor of such talent, it’s frustrating Liev Schreiber wasn’t given more to do. It’s a consistent performance but then again there’s little written on the page. Schreiber relies on his instincts and body language to make Spassky worthwhile watching. Like Fischer, Spassky was a tool of the Russian government but he was calm and collected. His reactions to Fischer’s bizarre antics help create some tension during the games in 1972, particularly as his unease progresses. Supporting players Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg are solid but their roles possess the same stagnant complexity that Fischer does.
Based on the events of the film, the central message I took away was that Fischer was his own worst nightmare. His paranoia and specific demands proved challenging for those around him, clashing with his success as a chess champion. Even after the film wraps, we see the real life Fischer’s further decline from success. Not only was this epilogue full of fascinating anecdotes, the events shown were more compelling than those depicted during the bulk of the near two-hour runtime. It was definitely carrying on the central message, but it also felt like beating a nail that’s already been hammered in.