Pawn Sacrifice – Can Chess be Made Exciting?

Pawn Sacrifice CineMarter Banner

Directed by Edward Zwick. Produced by Gail Katz, Tobey Maguire, and Edward Zwick. Written by Steven Knight. Release date: September 15, 2015 (limited); September 25, 2015 (wide).

Whenever I think of movies that took a niche subject matter and turned it into something special, I think back to 2010, as we had two excellent examples from that year: Black Swan and The Fighter. Now, these are two movies that can be enjoyed regardless of your feelings on the ballet and boxing. Because of the way the filmmakers approached the subject matter, the characters, and the story they were trying to tell, compelling films were made. It is with that statement that we come to Pawn Sacrifice, which really should have taken a lesson or two from those, or other, examples.

Pawn Sacrifice is about chess, or, more specifically, it’s about the life of Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire), one of the greatest chess players to ever live. The film details his rise to prominence before settling in on a planned 24-game match between Fischer and the defending chess champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) of the Soviet Union. Given that this took place in the 1970s, which was smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, the match was seen not just as a standard chess competition. It was nation against nation, not merely player versus player. It took on a higher meaning, but as the film relays to us, it very easily may not have taken place at all.

Pawn Sacrifice CineMarter #1

See, Bobby Fischer was not a particularly stable individual. As he progressed through life, his mental health began to deteriorate to the point that it dramatically affected his life. The movie posits that he suffered from paranoia, among other things, which led to him almost withdrawing from the match. Not being an expert on Fischer or his life, I’ll take the film’s assertions with a grain of salt, but assume that they’re more or less accurate.

Unfortunately for the audience, Fischer comes across as arrogant, infuriating, repulsive, and not someone for whom it is easy to root. We’re anchored to him for the majority of Pawn Sacrifice, and he’s so annoying as a character that I found myself hoping he’d lose his match to Spassky, retire, and the movie would end. Mental illness aside, this is not an easy person to like. You can respect his genius – and he was splendid at chess – but the self-importance and arrogance hurt whatever hope he had of making me care about whether he wins or loses the big match.

The chess itself, what we get of it, is about as exciting as one could make a game in which the contestants stare at a board, move pieces of wood, and then click the timer. If there’s one thing that director Edward Zwick does well, it’s make the chess scenes engaging. You don’t need to know much about chess and its numerous strategies to be thrilled by the games that take place in Pawn Sacrifice. Sadly, though, the best scenes take place midway through, and we don’t even get to see more than a couple of the games between Fischer and Spassky, so any thrills we do get are limited by this.

Pawn Sacrifice is a safe, shallow biopic about chess legend Bobby Fischer.

Most of the time, we follow a rather standard biopic recipe, but with Fischer’s unpredictability thrown in. That changes things up to an extent, although not enough to shake the feeling that what we’re watching is formulaic and a touch too shallow. Apart from being superb at chess and being very paranoid, I didn’t feel like I got to know Fischer as a person particularly well. Scenes in which character would typically be revealed are filled with chess jargon instead. It tells us how singularly focused Fischer was on the game, but nothing more.

Our supporting cast is even worse off. Liev Schreiber gets perhaps two scenes in which he isn’t staring at a chess board, and while he’s good at that, he gets nothing in terms of being a character. Lily Rabe appears as Fischer’s sister, Joan, but fails to leave much of an impression. Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg are both in the film a great deal, but beyond base character types, I couldn’t tell you anything about them. There’s almost no depth to the entire project. It’s not altogether bad, but it’s disappointing.

At least Tobey Maguire returns to the spotlight as Bobby Fischer, turning in an unhinged performance that only intermittently reminds one of the “emo Spider-Man” scenes from Spider-Man 3. Maguire struggles to shake his Peter Parker persona for much of the film, something he did easily in 2009’s Brothers, and it’s a shame that it follows him into the role of Bobby Fischer. Schreiber makes for a menacing opponent, but he’s the only other performance of note. Most everyone else just fades into the background.

Pawn Sacrifice is a safe, shallow biopic about chess legend Bobby Fischer. It has exciting chess scenes – although it doesn’t have enough of them – but, on the whole, it winds up being a disappointing movie. It saddles us with an annoying protagonist who, regardless of the reasons behind his attitude, is tough to watch, and its characters are largely devoid of depth. The film places great importance on a match from which we only get to see a few games, and it feels cliché from moment one until the point at which the text before the credits informs us of how Fischer spent the rest of his life. It’s not altogether bad, but it’s nowhere near as good as could have been hoped.

Bottom Line: Pawn Sacrifice is a disappointing shallow biopic about a complex man, but its few chess scenes are quite exciting.

Recommendation: Unless you’re a big chess fan, or are quite interested specifically in Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice isn’t worth your time.



If you want more of Matthew “Marter” Parkinson, you can follow him on the Twitter @Martertweet and check out his weekly movie podcast.

About the author