Film: “Pawn Sacrifice”; Cast: Toby Maguire, Live Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert; Director: Edward Zwick; Rating: ***
Based on the true story of American chess legend, Robert James Fischer who was known as “Bobby Fischer”, the film “Pawn Sacrifice” triumphs both as a character study and as a window into history. It also succeeds at metaphorically presenting chess as psychological warfare being waged behind the scenes.
It is a layered story in the backdrop of the Cold War between the Americans and Russians. The film has undercurrents of Capitalism versus Communism.
The narration leads us from Bobby Fischer’s days as a child, living with his mother and sister in Brooklyn to his worldwide chess rock star status. While the story traces his journey as a chess player, it basically focuses on him facing off with Russian Grandmaster, Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik in Iceland and at the same time facing his own paranoia.
Helping him steer his course towards victory is the patriotic American Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), a manager-cum-lawyer of sorts and Father Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) a former chess player, who coached Bobby when he was younger. Together, these two loyal supporters ensure that the unpredictable Bobby stays grounded and focused on the game.
In one of his strongest and most impressive performances, Maguire goes all out on Fischer’s quirks and insecurities. Although Fischer is unquestionably a genius, he’s not an easy person to like, and Maguire brilliantly gets that point across. He hooks you with a fascinatingly gripping performance as the chess master.
As Spassky, Schreiber delivers a layered performance that masterfully transcends the cliche of the stoic, determined Russian. Stuhlbarg and Sarsgaard are both captivating and keep the audience involved. And Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert lend the intimate, emotional note to the otherwise cold narration.
But what keeps you glued to the screen is Director Zwicks detailing of the scenes and the taut screenplay. He stimulates excitement by focusing compulsively on shots of the players clicking their game clocks back and forth, the pieces shifting on the board and scenes of Fischer mentally going through his games.
Also the black-and-white along with sepia tones and grainy frames evoke an earlier era.
Overall, the film is sufficiently stimulating and craftily mounted, not as a chess film, biopic or a documentary, but as a pure Hollywood celebrity film which delves into human interest and conflict.