(2015) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Sophie Nélisse, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Nathaly Thibault, Aiden Lovekamp, Ilia Volok, Conrad Pla, Andreas Apergis, Katie Nolan, Spiro Malandrakis, Peter Janov, Lydia Zadel. Directed by Edward Zwick
Chess is one of the most complex games ever invented. After just the third move, there are over 40 billion possible combinations that are available. It takes a strong, keen, focused mind to play the game well and to become a grandmaster takes an intellect that most of us can only dream of. To become the world’s chess champion however – well, few ever reach that pinnacle.
Bobby Fischer (Maguire) aspires to that mountaintop. As a young boy (Lovekamp) he developed a passion for the game. His mother Regina (Weigert) raised him and his sister Joan (Nélisse) as a single mom; an American-board Jew who had fled Europe prior to World War II, she had become a communist sympathizer which led to their home being watched by the FBI. Bobby’s chess prowess led Regina to bring him to the attention of Carmine Nigro (Pla), a chess champion who was impressed by Bobby’s skills and even more so by his potential.
As Bobby got older and became renowned as America’s best chess player, he turned his sights to the Russians who were the elite chess players of their day. However, in tournaments the Russians purposely would play Bobby to draws in order to lower his point school, keeping him from qualifying for a championship match with Boris Spassky (Schreiber), then the world champion. Lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg), wanting to see Fischer get a shot at the Russians and help America out of its doldrums caused by economic recession, civil unrest and the Vietnam War. He arranged for Bobby to be mentored by Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard), himself a grandmaster.
At last Bobby got his chance to play Spassky for the world championship but by this time his mental illness began to rear its ugly head. Bobby, beset by paranoia and by hyper-sensitivity to sound, began to make increasingly bizarre demands of the chess federation that sanctioned the match. He would arrive late to matches and on one occasion, not at all. His antics would lead him to go down two points to zero in the tournament against Spassky (in the tournament, players get one point for a win and a half point for a draw; a two point deficit is nearly insurmountable). His now adult and married sister (Rabe) is extremely concerned for his sanity.
Unable to maintain any interpersonal relationships because of his increasing paranoia and his poor social skills (he was demanding, uncompromising and often shrill, even to friends) other than with a prostitute (Brochu) with whom he’d had a brief sexual liaison, Bobby is in danger of losing everything he ever dreamed of and worse, being forced to give up the game that made him famous – but may be part of the disintegration of his mind.
The story of Bobby Fischer is a modern tragedy. Zwick, who directed Glory about 20 years ago, has an affinity for tragic stories but he goes a little overboard here. Fischer’s madness, which certainly has to be at or near center-stage for the film, becomes a little MORE than that; we’re subjected to endless scenes of imaginary pounding on his door, voices speaking in Russian, Maguire looking confused or concerned and so forth. I would have been more interested in how he overcame those things to play one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of chess.
Maguire has turned in some notable performances in films both large and small and while this isn’t one of his best, it is far from one that would earn him demerits. It would have been easy to make Bobby Fischer a series of psychotic tics and screaming rage fits but he resists the urge to let those define the character. Maguire actually makes Fischer, maybe one of the most unsympathetic figures in history, somewhat sympathetic here, a little boy lost amid the growing noises in his head that would eventually overwhelm him.
Part of what is fascinating about this story is the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Fischer; he was playing not just for the championship, but for an ideology. He was playing to show that the West was just as competitive and just as intellectually acute as the Soviets. He was expected to win and the film only touches on that. We don’t get a sense of whether that affected Fischer or not; some accounts say that it did but you wouldn’t know it by watching this.
Schreiber and Sarsgaard are both put in roles that are the sort both actors excel at and they respond with excellence. The former plays Spassky as a man who understands that he is playing a very dangerous game, but knows how to play it very well. He’s a bit of an international playboy but he is also one of the greatest chess players not just of his day but ever. He also works within a repressive system in which he is almost always watched and surrounded by what are ostensibly bodyguards but who are there as much to keep him from defecting as they are to keep him from harm.
&Sarsgaard plays the priest who is also a grandmaster (this isn’t made up; the man really existed) and who served as Fischer’s second, analyzing his game and opponent and preparing Fischer with rapid-fire games. Gentle of demeanor, he doesn’t seem cut out for the cut-throat world of international chess in an era when it was highly politicized. Sarsgaard in many ways acts as the conduit between the audience and the action, letting us know if we should be concerned or overjoyed at Fischer’s various games. The movie spends a good deal of time on Game 6 of the Fischer-Spassky tournament, which many in the chess community view as the greatest game ever played. Certainly to anyone who knows the game, it was a thing of beauty, one which caused even Spassky to applaud his opponent. That doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it’s only happened once.
In fact, this is a solidly acted movie throughout and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if it was going to be; the story lends itself to scenery chewing of the first order, but fortunately we don’t see any of that except for rare instances. Bobby Fischer is a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to younger audiences; people my age probably remember the Fischer-mania that swept the nation, a notoriety the real grandmaster neither sought out nor wanted. The demons that beset the man and ultimately brought him down until he was eventually a man without a country, whom the world had essentially turned its back on. When he died in 2008, it became a sad obituary in what had once been a flame-brilliant career. Is this the movie that could best capture his life? I don’t think any dramatic narrative could. Even the documentary on Fischer scarcely captures the tragic nature of his life and fall and Pawn Sacrifice only hints at the fall.
In many ways, this is set up to be a sports underdog drama, but I didn’t leave with the cathartic feeling that many of those films instill in their audiences. Instead, I left feeling sad; sad for a bitter, unhappy man who happened to be a chess genius but never could master the game of life.
REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes some of the “going crazy” elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content, a bit of sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Bobby Fischer was a fan of the Manchester United football (soccer) team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Me and Bobby Fischer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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