At the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, film critic Jordan Hoffman reviewed the Bobby Fischer biopic 'Pawn Sacrifice.' Read his review before you see the film, which releases Sept. 18th:
I was recently beaten at a game of checkers by an 8 year-old, so I can only imagine what it's like to be a chess genius. After seeing Pawn Sacrifice, I can see that it may not be that much fun. For a game that has 40 billion combinations after just four moves (as one character in the movie tells it) to try and master this game of “theory and memorization” can lead some to paranoia and madness. For Bobby Fischer, the American who some say is the greatest who ever played, add to this a proclivity toward mental instability and the weight of the Cold War, and you've got yourself a problem.
A problem and a pretty good movie, that is. Tobey Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer, bug-eyed and brilliant and mastering the Brooklyn accent. He walks the line between despicable and sympathetic. Fischer was obnoxious and demanding, but Ed Zwick's new movie does a good job of explaining just how he got that way. His story is tragic and fascinating, but also an interesting symbol for the 20th century.
There are many moments in the movie that seem too weird to be true, and yet I discovered seven fascinating facts from the film that turn out not to be fiction.
The movie presents Fischer's childhood home as a hotbed of libertine behavior and radicalism. There's some truth to this. He never quite knew who his father was and his mother was a leftwing political activist who lived in pre-Stalinist Russia for many years. (She was of Russian-Polish-Jewish origin but born in Switzerland and raised in St. Louis.)
Whether or not her Russian and Jewish roots, as well as her noisy lovers, were the root of Fischer's virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism — as well as his unending quest to find silence — is up for psychologists to determine. The movie sure makes the case, though.
Pawn Sacrifice shows a pre-teen Bobby Fischer blowing away adult challengers with aplomb. This is all true. He won the U.S. Championship at age 14, at which point he set his sights on the Russian and the international title.
Bobby's aggressive attitude is simplified in Pawn Sacrifice to an incident in 1962 when he accused the Soviet chess team of colluding to make it mathematically impossible for Fischer to advance. He claimed they used stalling tactics to ensure draws in games against him, allowing for others on the Soviet team to advance on points. He decided at that time to stop playing professional chess.
The movie shows this happening all in one afternoon, which isn't exactly accurate, but is true to the spirit. To get Fischer back on his feet, two people enter his life – a “patriotic” lawyer Paul Marshall and a chess-playin' priest named Fr. Bill Lombardy.
Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg in the film) is a curious character, no doubt made more enigmatic in the film. He was, in fact, a lawyer for British rock bands like the Rolling Stones. He helped Fischer with visas and petitioning world chess associations after his rebuke. It is heavily implied in the film that he is something of a stooge for the U.S. State department, which recognizes that if Fischer could actually beat the Soviets at chess, it would be a propaganda win.
Also in Fischer's corner is wise priest Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard.) Lombardy was another kid from New York's outer boroughs, and was Fischer's coach and friend for decades. He played competitively, and even beat Fischer's eventual rival Boris Spassky when they were young.
C'mon, Chess on TV?
Pawn Sacrifice suggests that the eventual match between Bobby Fischer and Russian Grandmaster Boris Spassky was the biggest thing since the moon landing. It's an exaggeration, but the 1972 showdown in Iceland was, actually, quite a big deal.
It was a clear case of the Cold War acting out in an unusual arena, and America was hoping for another upset like pianist Van Cliburn taking top prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958. The game was televised and endlessly discussed, and there was a significant uptick in chess clubs across the country.
Chess in the Ping Pong Room
By the time Fischer made it to Iceland, he'd become a paranoid mess. For someone obsessed with literal chess moves, his was a mind racing at a million miles a minute. Add to this the pressure of, as Paul Marshall reminded him, a soldier in the war against Communism, and it's not much of a surprise that he cracked.
As such, his behavior got strange. (The film shows him at the airport with a paper bag over his head.) He became convinced that his phone was tapped and that the Soviets were trying to mess with his mind. During the Iceland match – which consisted of 24 individual games – he complained about the cameras being too loud. He demanded that they be removed and refused to play with them on. He forfeited the second game when his demands were not met.
He agreed to a third game only if it was done in a ping-pong room elsewhere in the facility and broadcast to the audience over close-circuit television. At the time, no one knew if Fischer was just being ridiculously fussy or if this was a psy-ops tactic.
Later in the match, Spassky fired back, arguing that his chair was vibrating and the lights were buzzing too loudly, and demanded that they be inspected. Again, it is unclear if this was merely Spassky trying to parry with his own nuisance behavior or if he actually believed it. Pawn Sacrifice suggests that paranoia and being a chess genius go hand in hand.
After Fischer's eventual win (spoiler?), Fischer fell into a rabbit hole. He quit chess, took to being a drunk in parks, and became a vicious anti-Semite and anti-American. He broke US foreign policy when he agreed to replay Spassky in Belgrade in the early 90s. He was a bearded, ranting international fugitive for many years until Iceland eventually offered him clemency.
Pawn Sacrifice doesn't shy away from showing Fischer's brutal end, but it also highlights Game Six of the Fischer-Spassky match. I'm not a chess expert (the bishop goes diagonal, right?) but the movie presents this famous moment as something like a symphony. It is considered to be the greatest game ever played, and even Boris Spassky himself stood up and applauded once he realized how innovatively he'd been beaten.