Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Edward Zinoviev, Alexandre Gorchkov, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Seen on: 16.5.2016
Bobby Fisher (Tobey Maguire) loves one thing and one thing only: playing chess. And he’s damn good at it. So good, in fact, that he seems to be the only person who might be able to actually beat the Russians, in particular the current world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). In times of the Cold War, that victory becomes much more than a simple win in a game. But the pressure that puts on Bobby starts to be too much for his already fractured psyche.
I’m not a huge fan of movies that are yet another take on how closely genius and madness lie together. Usually those films do a great disservice to both. So I probably wouldn’t have seen Pawn Sacrifice if it hadn’t been for Liev Schreiber. Which would have actually been a pity. It didn’t blow me away, but it is a very decent film with great characters.
What Pawn Sacrifice actually seems to get that many films about the genius/madness connection like to ignore is the fact that mental illness doesn’t make genius and vice versa [at least that’s my conviction]. Some people just happen to be very smart and mentally ill at the same time. But certain factors of mental illness can help hone certain intellectual skills, and I’d say that this is what happened with Bobby Fisher (as portrayed in this film): his pathological obsessiveness helped him devote so much time and focus on chess that he was able to become better at it than most other people.
But the film also shows that when his paranoia and anxiety took over more and more, it very much got in his way. Be it unreasonable demands from basically everyone around him or simply not showing up to a scheduled game. And again with his paranoia, the film is careful not to say that the Cold War made him paranoid, but it does show that the Cold War was steady nourishment for his fears. Maguire does a surprisingly good job here, too.
But it’s not only with Bobby Fisher that the film does excellent character work, I also loved their take on Boris Spassky. With the space afforded by the script and Schreiber’s laconic performance (on a sidenote: who is hotter than Liev Schreiber? That’s right, Russian speaking Liev Schreiber), Spassky becomes more than just a surly, Russian opponent; and it starts dawning on him that he might have more in common with Fisher than anticipated.
Nevertheless my reaction to the film wasn’t completely enthusiastic and it’s not all to do with my disinterest in chess or the Cold War. For me it lacked tension at crucial moments I also would have liked to get more inside Bobby’s head – the film does tend to stay a little removed from his inner life, looking on his paranoia and obsessiveness rather than making us experience it. But those are questions of personal taste rather than quality – and Pawn Sacrifice is good enough to warrant a watch despite that.