Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

24 Sep

He wasn’t an actor, athlete, politician, scientist, writer, artist, or musician, but Bobby Fisher was one of the biggest celebrities of his time. The chess prodigy was known for his enigmatic and explosive personality, but he helped popularize the game for millions of Americans. Pawn Sacrifice, directed by Ed Zwick, tells the story of Bobby (Tobey Maguire), mostly focusing on his infamous match against the Russian world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

Zwick keeps things at a pretty tight pace the first half of the film, where we are introduced to Bobby as a child and soon learn about his impeccable talent for visualizing moves both on and off the chessboard. Later in life, we see Bobby’s rising concerns and soviet paranoia consume his personality, as he is introduced to lawyer Paul Marshal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who convinces him to play the Russians as an act of patriotism. Under the wing of his mentor/chess coach Father Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby tries to push aside his inner distractions and focus all his mental energy into becoming the new world champion. It’s in the film’s latter half that things begin to fall apart and the film’s flaws become magnified.

The plot steeps into familiar territory more than once and seems to fall back on formulaic biopic tropes just when things get interested.  Written by Steven Knight, Christopher Wilkinson, and Stephen J. Rivele, the script grasps at many different ideas (the nature of genius, the importance of nationalism, paranoia, and privacy in the Watergate era) but the film feels so disjointed and choppy that they never materialize into much.

The big shining star here is Maguire’s unhinged performance. Easily one of the year’s best, Maguire perfectly captures the intriguing mannerisms and dimensionality of such a complex and interesting character (a comparison with the real life Bobby’s speech patterns is remarkable), and his fierce unpredictability keeps things feeling fresh when the rest of the film gets predictably stale.

An avid chess fan myself, I kept wanting the film to explore the fascinating nature of the game in relation to it’s passion characters. The overarching problem with Pawn Sacrifice is that it’s characters are far too simple – a tragic misstep when considering they are involved in arguably the world’s most complicated game.

Bottom Line: With a career-best performance from Tobey Maguire, Pawn Sacrifice is a solid film, but the tension fizzles out too early and the drama never quite reaches the heights it should. 

 

Spidey channeling his inner rage

Rating: 6/10 

Film Recipe: Good Will Hunting + A Beautiful Mind + The Imitation Game + Freddie Quell from The Master 

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