Featuring stellar performances from a top-notch cast lead by a raw and riveting Tobey Maguire, Pawn Sacrifice brings to fascinating life the very unlikely story of the late Bobby Fischer, who at the height of the Cold War seemingly took on the entire Soviet Union as he sought to become the first American to ever win the title of World Chess Champion by defeating the champion at the time, Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky. Part classic David-vs-Goliath sports story and part biopic, the film delves deep into the psyche of the notoriously eccentric and volatile Fischer as his successes mounted, his fame grew, and his mental stability seemingly deteriorated even as he got closer and closer to his lifelong goal. It’s a slow-building, consistently intense film, one that will command your attention and engagement, even if you don’t know anything about the real-life Fischer or chess, and will probably have you wanting to learn a little more about both after the credits have rolled.
Pawn Sacrifice focuses on key moments and events in Fischer’s life leading up to Fischer’s 1972 face-off with Spassky, the “Match of the Century”, as it was dubbed by the worldwide media. It starts in Brooklyn in 1951, when at age 6 young Bobby obsessively played game after game against himself in voluntary seclusion in his room while his single mother, Regina (Robin Weigert) worked hard to both support him and his sister Joan and to further the goals of the Communist Party of which she was openly a member. Hoping to perhaps bring Bobby out of his shell a bit, Regina introduces Bobby to a local chess guru, Carmine Nigro (Cornrad Pla), who within a few hours recognizes Bobby’s uncanny level of focus and unorthodox but effective approaches to the game. It’s not long before Bobby is participating in Brooklyn Chess Club matches, mowing down all he plays against, until at age 13 he becomes the youngest-ever U.S. Junior Champion. It’s there that he announces publicly his long-held ambition to take on the Russians, arguably the finest chess players in the world at the time, and beat them all.
Flash forward to 1962. After walking out of a competition when he sees what he believes to be collusion among Russian players to keep him from attaining the victories he needs to challenge World Champion Spassky, Bobby gives up competitive chess entirely. It’s then that his future manager, Paul Marshall (Michael Stulbarg) approaches him and draws him back into the game, promising to push forward Bobby’s demands for reform in order to level the playing field with the Russians. To help Bobby in his quest, Marshall brings on board Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a Catholic priest and chess master in his own right who is one of the few American players that Bobby genuinely respects. With Marshall greasing the wheels and Lombardy coaching, Bobby begins his quest to take on and defeat as many international grandmasters as it takes to earn the right to challenge Spassky. His victories earn him international media attention and fame, as well as the attention of powerful politicians on both sides of the Cold War divide, who begin to see both Bobby and Spassky as proxies in their ongoing war of public perception and ideology.
All that attention brings pressure, as well, and for Marshall and Lombardy, the task of keeping the volatile and abrasive Bobby simply showing up to play matches becomes more and more difficult. As the match with Spassky draws closer and closer, the question soon becomes who or what truly will be Bobby’s greatest opponent in terms of becoming World Champion: Spassky, or Bobby’s own eccentricity and growing paranoia, which threatens to derail a confrontation that comes to mean far more to the world than simply pieces moving on a chessboard.
Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai) is arguably best known for his consistent ability to take watershed events from world history and distill them into commercial films while still maintaining a commitment to historical accuracy and detail. In particular, he’s proven to be extremely adept at depicting battlefields and battlefield strategy and how it unfolds in a way that’s accessible and enjoyable to watch. That talent is why Zwick is perhaps the perfect choice to helm a film whose focus is something as cerebral and strategic as the game of chess, and also one that focuses on Fischer, who by most published accounts was waging his own war with the chess establishment and its rules which seemed (to him, at any rate) to be aimed at keeping him from reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
Working from a script by Stephen Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises), Zwick’s vision for Fischer’s quest is a reflection of actor Tobey Maguire’s take on the man himself: moody, complicated, and ultimately unpredictable, even if you know the story and how it all eventually unfolded. Zwick keeps the narrative balanced between Bobby’s very personal and internal struggle with the unseen forces his mind told him were conspiring against him with the impact of both his victories and his increasingly unreasonable demands regarding competition upon those closest to him and the world at large. It’s a difficult balancing act that managed in part through a slower narrative pace and many dialogue-driven scenes, which admittedly may try the patience of audiences wanting more “bang” for their box office buck.
Zwick’s measured and character-driven approach to storytelling in Pawn Sacrifice is certainly justified by the collection of superb performances he gets from his ensemble, starting with Tobey Maguire delivering work that should put him on the map again as a performer who can carry a film in a demanding leading role. Maguire conveys Fischer’s intelligence, arrogance, volatility, and paranoia primarily with his eyes: always intense, always moving, often wide with realization, fear, or panic. As Maguire steers Bobby toward more and more erratic behaviors, watching how those around him react becomes a showcase for the film’s supporting talent, in particular the two men playing his chess peers, Peter Sarsgaard as Lombardy and Liev Schreiber as the placid, almost unflappable Spassky. Lily Rabe of “American Horror Story” fame also stands out in limited screen time as Bobby’s sister Joan, who at times in the film is Bobby’s only truly trusted confidante, and at others is the one most hurt by his very public antisemitic comments regarding governmental and corporate conspiracies.
Zwick also takes great care to make sure audiences never lose sight of just what else happened to be going on in the world at the time of Bobby’s ascent to global stardom and his pursuit of Spassky and the World title. This was the era of Vietman (in its final stages, at any rate), Nixon, Watergate, and continuing political and social tension and change, so the fact that something as niche as competitive chess could capture the world’s imagination, and someone as eccentric and difficult to understand as Fischer could become the equivalent of a rock star in America, is, in the view of Zwick and those behind this film, in great part what makes this story so fascinating.
The other part is, of course, Fischer himself, and the mystery of just how much of his behavior was calculated and how much, if not all, was due to genuine mental illness. As chess historians and those who have studied the life and times of the real-life Fischer continue to debate that mystery, the film also avoids giving a definitive answer to the question, though it does seem to lean more toward one theory than the other. That deliberate ambiguity only makes the film even more entertaining to watch.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stulbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert. Directed by Edward Zwick.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking.