Although the general rule that a film pushed from a prime release date to a terrible one will itself likely be terrible does not entirely apply to Pawn Sacrifice, the fact remains that it premiered at Toronto last year and seemed headed for an awards-season release. The reviews weren’t quite there, it was picked up by a lesser-known distributor (Bleecker Street, who might be making a play for awards attention later this year–but never mind), and now it bows in September, one of the slowest movie months.
And while it isn’t terrible, it falls rather short of the mark, with much of the blame falling on the hazily focused script and the uneven, often TV-level direction. And while Tobey Maguire does do a solid job as chess phenom Bobby Fischer, it’s the supporting cast who steal the film from him.
While the trailers suggested the film would focus on the 1972 tournament between Fischer and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) for the world championship title, the tournament doesn’t really begin until the film’s second half, the first half focusing on the genesis of Fischer’s paranoia as he sees government agents spying on his Communist mother, and on his rise from chess prodigy, to world recognition, to accusing the Soviets of rigging their championships, to losing to Spassky in 1965, to fighting his way back to the top–all while his fears of being spied upon and being the target of various conspiracies begin to overwhelm him; he even becomes anti-Semitic despite being from a Jewish family.
Finally, we get to the 1972 match, and despite issues caused by Fischer’s paranoia, such as the tournament being temporarily moved to a ping-pong room in the tournament hall, he beats Spassky in the famous Game 6 and goes on to win the tournament. But, as the coda informs us, his mental health continued to decline and, after a dispute with the American authorities over his playing a rematch with Spassky in Belgrade 20 years on, he became stateless and finally settled in Iceland–the site of his triumph over Spassky–before his death in 2008.
It was disappointing to see that Steven Knight was responsible for the script, given the high regard in which I held his work (as a writer and director) on Locke. But the story is credited to three people (Knight, Steven J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson), and that might help explain the film’s messiness. By spreading the focus of the film not over a few weeks or months (the championship itself lasted about seven weeks), but over nearly 20 years, it obscures exactly what the film’s goals are.
If the idea was to present a portrait of Bobby Fischer, then the script never digs quite deep enough into his psychology to succeed–we see his growing psychosis, but it is never shaped into a satisfying narrative, nor do we come to feel much for him in either direction. Perhaps the idea was to explore his life and times in part through his mental vicissitudes, not unlike The Aviator, but Fischer here is never really humanized like Howard Hughes was in that film. We see a lot of him, but we never really know him. In the end, the supporting characters tend to take over.
I had hopes that this would be a bravura performance for Tobey Maguire that would make him a prime contender for my Best Actor lineup, but while he’s good, his performance lacks a certain depth to make it truly great. He’s convincingly arrogant and erratic, making obnoxious or outrageous demands while falling deeper into a pit of paranoid terror, finally asking his manager, to his face, if he is a Communist agent–finally reaching the point where there is no one he cannot imagine betraying him. Throughout, Maguire hits all the right beats.
But something in his performance just never catches fire. It’s not that it’s insincere, it’s that he never seems to truly understand Fischer, or he and the screenwriters and/or director Edward Zwick didn’t fully agree on their interpretation of him. It’s a solid piece of work, but I just can’t say much more for it than that. It’s too bad the film mostly glosses over Fischer’s later years (mostly using stock footage), as depicting those would’ve given Maguire some excellent opportunities.
The film is more or less stolen by Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg. Sarsgaard plays Fr. Bill Lombardy, a chess devotee who becomes Fischer’s second and general confidante, and follows his great small role in Black Mass with a less flashy but arguably more resonant portrayal. Lombardy clearly cares for Fischer and understands the destructive effect of his psychoses, but realizes the futility of trying to convince him to seek help, even describing putting Fischer on antipsychotics as being like “pouring cement down a holy well”.
Sarsgaard delivers this line not with fanatical fervor but with resignation; Lombardy has no illusions about Fischer’s mental health, but knows full well the level of his genius at chess, and sees the former as the price of the latter. Sarsgaard communicates all of Lombardy’s facets with the subtlety and surehandedness that makes him one of the most underappreciated actors working today.
Stuhlbarg plays Paul Marshall, a lawyer who becomes Fischer’s agent (it would appear this is one of those composite characters you find in a lot of biopics), and he does an excellent job depicting Marshall’s faintly seedy desperation, as he works to placate Bobby and manage his increasingly erratic behavior without jeopardizing his meal ticket. Stuhlbarg doesn’t play Marshall as merely venal (indeed, he seems as much concerned with symbolically defeating the Soviets as with making money), but as a kind of vaguely principled toady.
His furtive smiles and constant smoking are characteristic flourishes; Stuhlbarg is never less than convincing, and even if he and Sarsgaard are occasionally stuck with some overtly expository dialogue, such as Marshall continually asking Lombardy just what is going on during the matches, together they steal the film right out from under its star’s nose.
Also worth noting is Schreiber’s work as Spassky. Most of his dialogue is in Russian (delivered quite fluidly), but he brings considerable depth to his appearances, showing Spassky as generally cool and professional, but genuinely disappointed when Fischer doesn’t appear for the second game of the tournament, especially when he faces the prospect of winning by default, which brings him not the slightest trace of joy. In one scene, he talks to the Soviet government through what he presumes are bugs in his hotel room–a variation on Fischer’s paranoia, here motivated by an awareness of Soviet reality. He even has his chair broken down and X-rayed at one point while searching for bugs.
Schreiber does a great deal with so much as a look, and if the film doesn’t give him quite as much to do as it should, it’s an effective turn which made me realize that I’ve rather overlooked his work to date. I’ll have to fix that.
The rest of the cast is passable, though none match the great supporting trio; Lily Rabe is fairly overwrought as Fischer’s sister Joan, the only person to try and confront the reality of his illness, while Robin Weigert is okay as their bohemian mother, Regina.
Zwick’s direction may have been curtailed by a tight budget, but the sheer amount of stock footage used to bridge the various transitions in the narrative is inexcusable. It looks horribly cheap and only serves to pad the film. In between, Zwick does a passable job–Fischer’s deteriorating mental state is fairly well evoked–but the film is marred by various hackneyed touches, like showing the various minor characters we’ve met throughout watching the championship with bated breath, then beaming smiles.
The production and costume designs are quite solid indeed, and Bradford Young manages some good shots, though not quite enough to offset Zwick’s general lack of visual verve. Steven Rosenblum’s editing isn’t too bad on the whole, though the aforementioned stock footage, in not being reduced to the bare minimum, hampers his achievement in my eyes. James Newton Howard’s score is barely a factor; the trailer suggested the film would have a tense, dark, dramatic score, but instead the film is mostly scored by oldies of varying prominence. It makes the film feel even chintzier.
Pawn Sacrifice had my hopes up, once upon a time, and if I’m being fair, it did not completely fail me; it has some effective moments and some very good acting, though I expected virtuosity from its lead and got adequacy instead. It’s not really a bad film, just one that I and the world will scarcely remember in six months’ time. For some films that would be a tragedy, but here, it’s the kind of inevitability that Sarsgaard would deliver in that tone of resignation.