Pawn Sacrifice is the story of the chess player, Bobby Fischer, and how he found himself caught between two superpowers (the United States and the U.S.S.R.), during the Cold War as he played against chess-player champion, Boris Spassky, in Iceland. Pawn Sacrifice isn’t a perfect film, but it works well as not only a chess movie, but also as a study of Bobby Fischer’s character, and his difficulties living with schizophrenia.
Pawn Sacrifice works because it doesn’t just act out typical sports clichés, although there are a few examples of that. Instead, it goes much deeper. As played by actor Tobey Maguire, Bobby Fischer is shown to be a very strange and awkward person. Starting from childhood around 1951, Fischer is already portrayed as having problems, but also having already developed his love and skill for chess. While growing into an adult, Fischer disliked any sounds that would potentially disturb him, constantly thought he was being watched, and even, for a brief scene, is shown wearing a paper bag on his head out of shame. The film doesn’t shy away at all from portraying Bobby Fischer as anything but a real hero.
Tobey Maguire gives an extremely good performance as Fischer. Probably the best of his career. He portrays Fischer as socially awkward and inept. His best scene, in my opinion, was probably when he vents his frustration while driving in a car and says “Stop the car now! Pull over!” The rest of the supporting cast does well, even if they don’t have as much meat as Maguire does. Peter Sarsgaard’s role is as a priest, who helps Fischer with his game and his problems. His best scene was when he points out the psychology of chess, and how it affects its players. Michael Stuhlbarg, as Paul Marshall, is another assistant, and Liev Schrieber is Boris Spassky, who notably only ever speaks one line of dialogue throughout the film in English, that being “You don’t look well, Robert James”.
The editing is excellent. In several sequences the film shows archival footage from the past. For example, the film opens with archival footage of the real battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky as shown by reporters. Another example, is when the film goes to California, they show real archival footage of surfers on the beach in order for the audience to get the sense of what the California beach scene was really like at that time in history. The editing is one of the best aspects of the film, and it must have taken them a long time to find all the footage they needed. Kudos to them.
The film uses typewriting in order to show flashbacks and point out characters and locations. Although it doesn’t appear much, it is still something worth pointing out, as it was a good way of providing the audience with when these events actually took place.
The score, by James Newton Howard, is short but pretty effective. Aside from the score, there’s also a pounding sound that happens in some of the scenes. Perhaps, this sound is an attempt by the filmmakers to make the audience feel like they’re experiencing how Fischer was feeling. One sequence in particular, for example, we see Fischer walking towards the chess game, and everything suddenly slows done and becomes much quieter, like we are hearing things the way he does inside his head.
When Bobby Fischer mentions that he feels like the Russians are watching him, I wished this idea had been explored further in the film. It could have been an interesting subplot, especially if the filmmakers had developed the idea that Fischer and Boris were pawns during the Cold War. Another subplot that seemed “tacked on” was in the beginning of the film where he has a brief relationship with a motel girl, named Donna, and he loses his virginity. Perhaps this may have happened in real life, but it goes nowhere in the film, except for when she later pops up briefly while watching him on television.
Overall, however, Pawn Sacrifice is a film worth watching, especially if you enjoy chess. It’s well done, well shot, and features a very good lead performance by Tobey Maguire with a strong supporting cast. Not much else you can ask for, out of a film, really. It is definitely worth checking out.