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Film explores chess, madness, Cold War politics

  • BLEECKER STREET
    Tobey Mcguire, right, stars as Bobby Fischer in the historic Fischer-Spassky chess showdown in 1972. Spassky is played by Liev Schreiber.
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It was a challenge to play Bobby Fischer in chess, and it’s a challenge for an actor to play him on the screen. Anyone taking on the task needs to be careful not to get carried away with the man’s eccentricities, to make sure to retain the pathos beneath the sideshow.

Tobey Maguire meets that challenge adroitly in "Pawn Sacrifice," a film by Edward Zwick about Fischer’s 1972 chess match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. His character is infuriating — "Just play the game, already," you want to shout at the screen as Fischer’s real and imagined demons cause him to disrupt the match. Yet you regret succumbing to that feeling because you know intellectually that the guy is not being merely petulant.

The Fischer-Spassky match in the summer of 1972 took place, of course, during the Cold War, with the title of world champion at stake. Chess was a game the Soviets owned, but Fischer had been a force to be reckoned with since he was a child.

The film gives a sketch of Fischer’s youth, hitting just enough of it to link his future paranoia to mommy issues. (Robin Weigert plays his mother, Regina; Lily Rabe is his sister, Joan.) This section of the film feels a little pat, but it at least helps set up the coming political dynamics, Regina having been under the FBI’s watchful eye for suspected communist sympathies.

"PAWN SACRIFICE"
Rated: PG-13
*** 1/2
Opens Friday at Kahala 8

The match, which was played in Iceland, was a classic pre-Internet media circus, and the film efficiently captures the bombast it inspired in the United States, not to mention the chess mania. Liev Schreiber has an impossible job as Spassky thanks to too many comedians who have created too many caricatures built on taciturn, tanklike Russians and East Europeans; he seems like a caricature himself.

But the focus is on Fischer, and Maguire, though not as imposing as the 6-foot-1 Fischer, is certainly as unpredictable. Fischer put all sorts of demands on the organizers of the match and skipped one game entirely. The film doesn’t delve into his life after the match, in which he forfeited his title; became known for incendiary remarks, especially about Judaism and Israel; and ultimately faded into obscurity before his death in 2008.

But Maguire certainly shows us the beginnings of all that and gives us a man who, while a great chess player, was poorly suited to become the central figure in a Cold War carnival. He was clearly beginning to melt down during this high-profile moment in time, with his coach, a chess-playing priest named Bill Lombardy (nicely portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard), shouldering much of the burden of keeping him on track.

Pity any ardent chess fans who go to this movie; they’ll be pounding the walls over the differences between Zwick’s depiction and reality, and will no doubt be irked that the film doesn’t dwell much on the actual chess playing. But this isn’t a chess movie, it isn’t a biopic, and it isn’t a documentary. (For that, see "Bobby Fischer Against the World," a very good 2011 treatment from HBO.) It’s a dramatization, one aimed at a general audience.

And, ultimately, it is only partly about Bobby Fischer. It is equally about us — Americans or any other nationality inclined to put too much importance on chess matches, soccer matches, space races, whatever. It’s about how we manufacture celebrities on scant pretext and then destroy them or allow them to destroy themselves while we watch.

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