All words: Alan Pyke
High-level chess has always walked hand in hand with madness. Before he wrote Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov followed a Russian chess savant from childhood into psychosis in The Defense. Einstein described the game as “shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” The family of American master Paul Morphy eventually tried to have him committed.
Modernity has all but forgotten Morphy, but another child prodigy who won fame and lost himself managed to achieve a celebrity along the way that’s so enduring that it’s carried multiple major Hollywood movies. The latest film to tell Bobby Fischer’s story is Pawn Sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire in the title role.
The real-life facts of the story Pawn Sacrifice explore the intersection of that classic psychological maelstrom and Cold War subterfuge. Fischer’s brand of delusion focused itself around antisemitic conspiracy theories that the CIA, Mossad, and KGB were all after him, bugging fillings in his teeth as part of some grand Jewish cabal.
The film depicts the only confirmed evidence of high-level U.S. government involvement in Fischer’s career. “This is the world’s worst chess player calling the world’s best chess player,” Henry Kissinger says when Fischer answers the phone during the depths of his paranoia about the Rejkavik match with Soviet World Champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Kissinger did call Fischer to encourage him to follow through with the match that’s central to both Pawn Sacrifice and Fischer’s real-life breakdown.
Steven Knight’s screenplay also insinuates that some of Fischer’s other fears were at least partly based in reality. It heavily implies that Paul Marshall, the attorney played by Michael Stuhlbarg who makes up one half of Fischer’s handlers, was indeed acting on behalf of government interests in his heavy-handed management of the brilliant and impossible chess phenom.
But director Edward Zwick’s (Courage Under Fire, The Siege) filmmaking choices lock the viewer into Fischer’s perspective with few such outside intrusions. In an early scene showing young Bobby using chess as a form of solace in his mother’s boisterous apartment, Zwick’s sound designers draw the audience into the kid’s keyed-up headspace. Tiny sounds like the tok-tok of a window shade against the glass of Bobby’s room blast out at deafening volume. Throughout Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby insists he hears things other characters can’t – suspicious clicking on a phone line, or the whir of a camera – and the filmmakers ensure we hear them as Bobby must have: insistent, unignorable, anxiety-producing.
A visual form of the same device, wherein the chess notation for moves Bobby is contemplating appear rapid-fire in white text above the board he’s staring at, is sadly absent from the movie after the first 15 minutes. The burden of conveying adult Bobby’s deterioration, mania, and genius at the board is mostly left to Maguire, who takes to the work with a shouty, nervous vigor.
The performance is riveting at times, but can’t quite carry the film on its own. In the end it’s the scenes depicting the fraying relationships and eroding fondness around Bobby that make Pawn Sacrifice continually engaging. Schreiber has little to do but makes the most of it, playing Spassky with a mix of dignified reserve and prideful defiance of his own team of handlers. The moments when he wraps his meaty face around bitterness at Fischer’s antics, indulgence in American entertainment, or pure admiration at his opponent’s play in Iceland are some of the movie’s high points.
Such stories can feel too alien without a character who audiences can identify with. Here, that duty falls to Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), whose calm bemusement and instinctive understanding of Bobby are critical to keeping the madman more-or-less on the rails. Bobby pushes even Father Bill past a breaking point, and the moment is wounding. He also gets the best line in the movie, responding to Marshall’s suggestion that they get Bobby on psychiatric meds by comparing the idea to “pouring concrete down a holy well.”
It’s easy to forget how much real-life basis there was for the sort of paranoia that ruined Fischer and occasionally tempted Spassky. The CIA really did fund cultural warfare with the Soviets. Government money subsidized 1950s intellectuals through the agency’s Congress for Cultural Freedom. It didn’t create Mark Rothko’s unsettling color splotches or Jackson Pollack’s bipolar splatterings, but it made sure the world saw them. Surveillance, bagmen, and wiretaps weren’t just for luring defectors and engineering bloody conflicts in the developing world.
The filmmaking of Pawn Sacrifice leans subtly into the parallels between the east/west geopolitical chess game and the ones that drove Fischer to madness, homelessness, and eventual death. After an opening coda showing an adult Bobby tearing his room apart in search of listening devices in Iceland, Zwick transitions into his childhood by way of a surveillance photographer’s shutter snapping away at the Fischer home while communists party inside. It’s just one of many ways the movie draws you into a strange sympathy for Bobby, not just as an American genius, but as a man constantly convinced those closest to him were saboteurs.