Monday, September 28, 2015


Director Edward Zwick spent the early days of his career painting on very large canvasses; ranging from terrorist attacks, Civil War stories, samurai battles, and the second World War. His newest effort, which tells the story of chess master Bobby Fischer, operates on a much smaller scale, which is a test for a director used to telling grand stories on grand stages.
Based on a true story, Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), a chess master since a young boy, engages Russian chess master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a series of matches to determine the world championship. Aided by his friends (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby battles his own inner demons as he finds himself in the center of the Cold War between the United States and Russia.

The early goings of PAWN SACRIFICE are standard biopic fare, as the film chronicles Bobby’s early life as a chess prodigy and his uneasy relationship with his mother and sister. Once the formalities are out of the way, director Edward Zwick shifts the focus from the procedural stuff over to his complex main character, who is noted for his eccentric behavior; ranging from paranoia to making bizarre statements and demands. As Bobby enters the international spotlight and becomes a celebrity with the weight of the Cold War bearing down on him, his behavior and mental state gets worse; constantly making outlandish demands and becoming a true burden to his friends and family. Although it’s based on a true story, PAWN SACRIFICE becomes a bit of hard sell with its main character, as he basically acts like an entitled prick for the entire film. Zwick isn’t shy about exploring that fine line between insanity and genius, or the mental burdens chess players must endure to become masters of their game, but it’s not easy to enjoy the film when the main character is an asshole and the stakes are just bragging rights in a political climate.

When PAWN SACRIFICE gets away from the pain-in-the-ass main character and focuses on the chess board, the film absolutely soars. The chess matches are intense and a joy to watch, and Zwick makes the matches interesting even if the viewer has zero knowledge of the basics or the complexities of the game. It’s fair to say that a chess match has never been more fun to watch since the actual Fischer/Spassky matches. Zwick composes some excellent sequences on and away from the board, making excellent usage of archival footage and period-specific rock music. Some excellent work is also done to insert Toby Maguire’s character into old footage with TV icon Dick Cavett and others.

Despite being unlikeable character, Toby Maguire does excellent work here. That balance between authentic wackjob and certified genius in on constant display, and it’s definitely the most layered work that he’s ever done. Live Schreiber mostly speaks in Russian throughout the movie, but does most of his effective work with his brooding and intimidating body language. Michael Stuhlbarg, as Bobby’s handler and lawyer who has the toughest job in the room babysitting him, does great work in showing the pressures of the situation. Peter Sarsgaard is fine as always.

One’s enjoyment of PAWN SACRIFICE depends upon how much they are willing to forgive Zwick for having such an unlikeable character at front-and-center. It’s really not Zwick’s fault as that’s the way it happened, making the film a serviceable docu-drama which just falls short of an emotional hook. There’s still a lot to enjoy, and it’s a unique entry into Zwick’s catalog as it stays intimate while playing on a world stage, but its only fun for half the time. This match is a draw.



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