Toronto Film Review: ‘Pawn Sacrifice

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by Justin Chang
Chief Film Critic

Tobey Maguire gives an angry, bristling performance as chess champ Bobby Fischer in Edward Zwick’s conventionally effective biopic.

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The moves are none too surprising but the psychological back-and-forth still compels attention in “Pawn Sacrifice,” director Edward Zwick’s conventionally well-crafted dramatization of the life of Bobby Fischer. Revisiting that astonishing moment when a world reeling from Vietnam and Watergate was held spellbound by an epic, emblematic 1972 chess match between Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, this straightforward but focused biopic doesn’t crack the mystery of the mentally troubled misanthrope who became the game’s greatest player, though Tobey Maguire’s angry, bristling lead performance does capture the man’s outsized personality in spades. An elegant if unrevealing title and the somewhat rarefied historical material may keep broad audience exposure at bay, but an enterprising distrib could court discerning grown-up interest.

Effectively a fictionalized companion piece to Liz Garbus’ 2011 documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” Steven Knight’s screenplay is structured around an event that, rather remarkably, has never furnished a dramatic feature film before. Amid escalating Cold War tensions, the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik — dubbed “the Match of the Century” by observers — took on enormous symbolic importance, pitting the plucky, unpredictable American challenger against the indomitable Soviet powerhouse in a definitive test of superpower strength (this phenomenon, as it applied to ice hockey, was recently explored by Gabe Polsky’s documentary, “Red Army”).

While that 21-game match-up will occupy much of the film’s latter half, Zwick and Knight spend the early going deftly move their pieces into position, so to speak, employing two younger actors (Aiden Lovekamp, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) to portray Bobby during his boyhood and teenage years in New York. During this time he immediately demonstrates a talent for chess, nurtured by his encouraging first teacher, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla). His brilliant intellect and passion for the game bring out a ferocious level of personal dedication and competitive instinct, which translate as hostility toward anyone he perceives as a distraction from his goal, including his neglectful single mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), whom he comes to resent for her steady stream of lovers and refusal to tell him who his biological father is.

These and many other challenging aspects of Fischer’s upbringing are mostly glossed over here, and the degree to which they shaped his identity — whether his mother’s own communist activism contributed to his extreme anti-Russian paranoia, for example — is never fully spelled out. The cause receives far less emphasis here the effect, and by the time Fischer (now played by Maguire) storms out of the 1962 Chess Olympiad in Varna, Bulgaria, blasting the Soviets for having allegedly colluded against him, he is a man fully formed in all his stubbornness, arrogance and eccentricity, a man who is determined to become the world’s greatest player and who utterly refuses to play according to any rules except his own.

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