Review: ‘Pawn Sacrifice’-a check but not a checkmate

One of the most common things I hear about being a movie critic is “ It must be really great to see all those great movies.” Well, they aren’t all great, and some of these pictures are just downright infuriating. One benefit to having endured such sensory nightmares is that they are generally easy to write about; it’s the ones that are just head and shoulders above all other films. I sometimes will run into a problem when I’m writing about films that are just somewhere in that middle range of not horrific or simply amazing. Take today for example, I’m going to take on the monumental task of proving to you why you should check out a movie about that is essentially about the 1972 Chess Championships in Reykjavik, Iceland. What was that … oh … you would rather relive trigonometry than to watch a film about the 1972 Chess Championships? I don’t blame you. But this was no ordinary Championship match.

In a world reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, we all were glued to the television as Russian Chess Master Boris Spassky was challenged by the young upstart Brooklyn native, Bobby Fischer. Boris Spassky was, by all accounts, a machine, and would just destroy all players who dared challenged him. Bobby Fischer was brash, bold, and full of bravado-the type of person that was loathed by the Russians and was adored by the American public. This match became such a sensation it was covered by all major news outlets and broadcast live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. This match was not about chess but national pride.

Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice delivers a very conventional biopic detailing Fischer’s upbringing and his rise through the chess ranks. Zwick is determined to focus the attention on the one-on-one aspect of a chess match, and does so by incorporating a ton of quick two shots of play on the board as well as the players hitting that timer after each move. I was certainly hoping that Zwick would spend more time delving into the serious mental deterioration that Fischer was undergoing during this time. If you remember (you probably don’t), Fischer actually didn’t show for one of his matches because he didn’t want to come out of this room, afraid spies were on his case. Zwick does touch on Fischer’s mental issues sporadically, but the effort can be only be described as touching the surface of what was a deep pool of material. Zwick misses an opportunity to take this movie to new heights.

What stands out most of all about Pawn Sacrifice is that it’s billed as one thing and it’s actually something completely different. If you were to go on to Google and type in the words “Pawn Sacrifice,” you would see that this movie is billed as a biopic of Bobby Fischer. In reality there is so little that we actually do learn about Bobby Fischer and his idiosyncrasies that you leave thinking something very different. Sixty percent of the film centers around that one chess match. Zwick delivers a conventional biopic when he does delve into the story of Fischer, yet there was nothing conventional about Bobby Fischer.

I enjoyed watching Pawn Sacrifice. I don’t find anything thing wrong with the final product. I feel if Zwick had delivered what was advertised he could have had a movie that was a powerhouse during awards season; instead it amounts to simply a “good” film. To put this in chess terms … Pawn Sacrifice is a check but not a checkmate.

pawn sacrifice

Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.