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Pawn Sacrifice

What a great, totally unknown movie! Pawn Sacrifice, the story of Bobby Fischer, the genius chess master, who as a very young man defeats Grand Master and World Champion Boris Spassky, to become recognized as the greatest chess player in the world, appears to want to be a story of governments scheming to best one another by using up fragile individuals and leaving them discarded in their wake. What the movie in fact turns out to be is a tour de force of acting.

Tobey Maguire plays each dimension of Fischer’s complex personality with equal skill, frightening us when he is angry, usually lashing out from places of dark irrationality, and softening us when he lets his guard down, which happens at rare but important moments. Peter Sarsgaard, as Fisher’s “guardian” Father Bill Lombardy is brilliant, filling his character with lots of emotion and empathy, while having relatively little screen time to do so. Sarsgaard is one of those actors who can do just about anything, and here he makes a Catholic priest engaging and funny, but also serious and thoughtful. He does so much with his body, and his hesitations, his rhythms, are perfect. He thoroughly convinces us he’s a priest.

Michael Stuhlbarg is good as the patriotic American businessman/lawyer, Paul Marshall, who engineers the famous challenge match in Iceland at which Fischer finally wins the coveted title. Marshall embodies the geopolitical aspect of the movie’s theme from the American side, but the movie portrays the Russians as just as cynically using Spassky to achieve their own ends of cold war triumph. Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan), who plays the Russian champion, steals every scene he’s in. Schreiber’s is a very good performance, and one feels that if there had been more in the script about him, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor might have lurked in it.

This movie contains a fascinating story, and embodies the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. It sometimes overplays the political side, but brilliantly shows the psychological displacement of Fischer from his earliest days as a child until the day he wins. There may have been one too many extreme close-up flashbacks to the same blinds cord knob, radiator, and shadows passing under the door of his childhood bedroom, but for the most part Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) does a masterful job directing this picture and balancing Fischer’s mental disparity with his genius.

One doesn’t have to know a thing about chess to feel the tension at both the level of the game and simple winning and of the political climate and the much more complex national posturing going on in Pawn Sacrifice. Fascinating stuff.

Drew Trotter

November 2, 2015

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