By: Kevin Jordan
I’m currently in the middle of a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen. The subtitle tells you everything you need to know about its content and the book covers a wide range of topics, including a section on heroification. Heroification is what you think it is – making a hero out of a person – and requires that anything bad about the person either be excused away or flat-out omitted. It was this section of the book that I kept thinking of while watching Pawn Sacrifice.
If you know anything about chess besides how to play it, you know that American Bobby Fischer became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating a Russian guy and that Garry Kasparov lost to a computer named Deep Blue in 1997. If you know any more than that, it’s because you are a much bigger dork than I am, and I own an American Civil War chess set. Pawn Sacrifice is a biopic about that first man – Bobby Fischer – and focuses on the time from Bobby’s childhood to the penultimate match with Boris Spassky (that Russian guy), the reigning world champion. Since this is obviously the first entry in Oscar-bait season, it’s not surprising that the film focuses much more heavily on the characters than on its own plot.
The obvious character to start with is Fischer (Tobey Maguire). Fischer is portrayed as a brilliant chess player, but a wholly unlikable human. Almost immediately into his chess career, he starts demanding things – more money, specific venues, absolute silence, among other things. In addition, he becomes more and more paranoid as time goes on. This time period being the height of the Cold War, Fischer becomes convinced that the government is spying on him; tapping every object in every house or hotel he stays in. Eventually, he starts accusing his friends (we’ll get to them in a minute) of being complicit, as well as the Jews (which is ironic because he’s Jewish). In addition, the stress of his three-year playing tour around the world (in order to be able to challenge Spassky for the world title) is exacerbating both his paranoia and demands. Like I said, he’s a very unlikable human, and Maguire does a great job in making you root against Fischer in the final showdown with Spassky.
On the flip side, Spassky (Liev Schreiber) is the opposite of Fischer. He’s cool and collected, tall and handsome, and, unlike Fischer, never comes off as cocky little asshole. But, besides chess, he does have one other thing in common with Fischer – he is certain that his Russian handlers are spying on him. He doesn’t go full-bore crazy searching for bugs like Fischer does (at one point Fischer is cutting the backs off picture frames), but he does start to exhibit little signs of paranoia, including a run-in with an office chair. Like Maguire, Schreiber does an excellent job portraying his character, and you will sympathize with Spassky as he has to put up with Fischer’s dickishness.
Speaking of putting up with Fischer, he has two friends in the entire world – Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). Marshall meets Fischer early in his career and offers to represent him as his agent. He is the guy who has to take the most shit from Fischer – he’s the guy that has to deliver Fischer’s demands and help make them happen – while also being constantly prodded by the government to make sure Fischer keeps playing until he beats the Russians. As Marshall puts it, “we lost China and we’re losing Vietnam. We can’t lose this.” If you don’t feel for Spassky by the end, you will feel for Marshall because it sure seems as if the victory for him is hollow after so many years of dealing with a Napoleonic narcissist.
Father Lombardy’s role is much fuzzier than Marshall’s. His job appears to be both babysitter and counselor, with the goal of keeping Fischer’s head just right enough to show up for his matches (and he fails more often than once). He also seems to have genuine concern for Fischer’s mental state and his only recourse is to play air chess with Fischer (they visualize the board and call out moves, but the first picture in your head was funny). As good a job as Stuhlbarg does (and Maguire and Schreiber), Sarsgaard steals the movie. There are parts of the movie that feel like he is the main character and his portrayal accomplishes the same level of sympathy as do the other actors, but with far more subtlety. It also helps (for me at least) that his character might be the least-holy priest ever portrayed in a movie, while still coming off as legitimate holy man.
The last character worth mentioning is Fischer’s sister, Joan (Lily Rabe). She has a small role, but it’s the one that introduces the flaw with this film – it feels like an unfinished game of chess itself. Through most of the movie, Joan becomes increasingly concerned for Bobby’s mental health, even to the point of talking with Marshall about it. She isn’t at all interested in the chess matches – until the last one. When Bobby wins, she leaps in joy in her living room and all concern for Bobby’s well-being is gone, never to be mentioned again. And, it’s the same with Lombardy. He actually quits the tour at one point, reluctantly returning in concern for Bobby. He even spells out the problem for Marshall – “Bobby isn’t afraid of what happens if he loses; he’s afraid of what happens if he wins.” This should have been the central question of the entire movie, but it’s tossed out the window with Joan’s concern and barely addressed as bullet points at the end of the film. Seriously, the film ends with title blocks listing a small handful of Fischer-related events, including the final score of the 24-game match with Spassky.
Do you see what I mean about heroification? The film presents Fischer as a hero of the cold war and makes Fischer’s chess game much more important than the game being played between governments and characters. They missed a chance to capitalize on the metaphor. Case in point, several scenes depict Bobby being photographed, followed by typewriter noises and the spelling out of a location and date on the screen, like a dossier of a secret agency. Yet, the film never answers the question as to whether Bobby’s paranoia was justified or if the camera was a figment of his imagination. It also treats everything that happens after the penultimate match as barely worth mentioning because virtually everything Fischer did after that (tax evasion, vagrancy, defying American embargos, to name three) are considered extremely un-American. Obviously, that book I’m reading is influencing the way I viewed this movie, but even if it wasn’t, I still would have noticed the unfinished storylines. Your move.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back. As incomplete as the storylines were, the performances were fantastic.