‘Pawn Sacrifice’: the genius & madness of Bobby Fischer

pawnThe new biodrama “Pawn Sacrifice” about the chess champion Bobby Fischer, doesn’t seem to be attracting much attention from U.S. movie audiences.

With so many other highly touted fall releases opening around it, the Edward Zwick drama is getting lost in the shuffle despite the high quality of its writing and directing and a very strong performance by Tobey Maguire as Fischer.

The 40-year-old actor might not seem physically right for the role to those of us who were around in 1972 — when the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match in Iceland became a major news story — but Maguire digs into the part with such commitment that the results are quite powerful.

Zwick manages the mean feat of making chess matches visually dynamic – he builds excitement even for those of us who haven’t played the game in many years.pawn1

The core of the film, however, is the examination of the mental pain Fischer endured as he rose to international fame. Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight show us that the line between madness and genius can disappear in cases like this one.

Fischer grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s to political activist parents who were apparently the object of FBI surveillance. The paranoia they felt as liberal Jews in the McCarthy era was planted in the boy’s mind and then grew alongside his extraordinary gift for playing chess.

The obsession with chess gave young Fischer a focus but it also left him socially maladjusted and unable to value much of anything in his life beyond the game.

Zwick and his crew do an excellent job of putting us in Fischer’s various neurotic states through skillful editing and a superb sound mix. It doesn’t make him conventionally sympathetic but we see that the illness and the gift for chess are bound together in a way that no psychiatrist could “cure.”

Maguire is surrounded by a first rate company of actors that includes Liev Schreiber as Spassky, Lily Rabe as Bobby’s sister, Peter Sarsgaard as the priest who coached Fischer, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the musician’s manager who took on the chess player as a client out of sheer admiration for his abilities.

Over the past few weeks, we have quickly shifted from the summer movie doldrums to an over-packed fall, but you shouldn’t let “Pawn Sacrifice” slip away from you.

Joe Meyers