Pawn Sacrifice is about the infamously enigmatic chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), as we follow him on his path to becoming the grand champion of chess while battling his own inner demons and the staggeringly monumental outside pressures to beat the Russians at the height of the cold war. After Bobby showed a tremendous aptitude for chess at a young age, Bobby honed his skills with one goal in mind, to beat the Russians at their own game. Accompanied by his lawyer/associate Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the one man who Bobby respects, a former chess player, but now a man of the cloth, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard). The trio trek the globe in order to set up a showdown with the Russian world chess champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in 1972.
Chess was being entirely dominated by the Russians in 1972, Bobby even went so far as to suggest that the Russians were deliberately inflating their numbers to fix the outcome of games, hence his reluctance to play, and his difficult demands when he would agree to play. This probably fueled the paranoia that would increasingly haunt him in his later years as well. Pawn Sacrifice focuses on Bobby's career in the early 1970s with his run for the chess world title that the Russians had held almost exclusively, brimming with nationalistic pride at their dominance of the intellectual sport. Although the movie is book-ended with moments of the legendary Fischer vs Spassky match, I didn't feel like it was necessary to start with the end. A lot of movies tend to be doing this now too, and I wish they'd stop. Rarely does it ever add anything to a movie.
Chess really wasn't considered much of anything of importance back in America, that is until Bobby Fischer burst on the scene. Bobby Fischer was the rock and roll star of chess, even if he didn't want to be. No man has influenced, changed and popularized chess as much as Bobby Fischer did. Pawn Sacrifice is a fine period piece, although it's not particularly exceptional in any regard. I was hoping to see more of the brilliance of Bobby Fischer on the chess board, but Edward Zwick (director) seemed more concerned with exploring (exploiting?) Bobby's personal problems and public controversies than he was with detailing his career and life as one of the world's foremost chess masters. Don't get me wrong, those demons of his should be explored, absolutely, but the emphasis placed on his psychological problems far outweighed his genius as a chess player.
The superimposition of Bobby Fischer with the world events at the time seemed disingenuous, it's hard to say why exactly, they just didn't ring true to me, and the soundtrack didn't really fit the tone of the movie either. Some parts seemed cheesy and unearned, his mother popping up for the odd cameo here and there and the inclusion of his sister felt more forced than they were necessary. I'm familiar with chess so I wanted to like this movie, but it felt bland, erratic and surprisingly boring. This is Bobby Fischer. The man who could unnerve old grand chess masters with one move. Make them sweat bullets with his mere presence and second guess their every move, but I never got that vibe of his intimidating prowess on the chess board from Pawn Sacrifice.
Tobey gave a good performance as the neurotic, paranoid and probably schizophrenic Bobby Fischer, but I wanted to see more of the chess aspect of his life, not his well-known and well documented problems with paranoia and schizophrenia. Underneath all his eccentricities was an unrivaled giant of the game, but I never got a good sense of the weight of this chess match that would be a massive victory of propaganda. That one man had managed to topple the soviet dominance of the sport, and helped shatter their confidence, as a country. At least in some small part. Liev Schrieber gave another underrated performance as Bobby Fischer's greatest rival, Boris Spassky.
Sadly, there was not a lot in Pawn Sacrifice that was particularly edifying about chess, or about how Bobby Fischer played it and revolutionized how people would play the game for decades to come, and beyond. The game of kings, as they say. If you know nothing about chess before watching this, then you're probably not going to learn anything about the sport by watching this. Granted, Pawn Sacrifice was probably intended to be a character study more than it was a movie about chess, but to understand someone like Bobby Fischer, at least having a basic grasp of chess would surely help grasp the psychological toll that a game like chess can take on a person. Pawn Sacrifice is a serviceable biopic, but it never really gets under the skin of Bobby Fischer in the way a biopic is supposed to. It never fully explored how Bobby Fischer indelibly changed the game of chess or why his reputation preceded him. It also never gave us an insight into the mechanics of his mind either.
Written by - The Sentry - 09/12/2015