[Screen It]


(2015) (Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber) (PG-13)

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Drama: An American chess prodigy tries to defeat his Russian counterpart, all while dealing with paranoia, a huge and demanding ego, and becoming the patriotic hope for American's wishing to defeat the Russians at the sport during the Cold War.
It's the Cold War era and Bobby Fischer (TOBEY MAGUIRE) is the number one chess player in America and much of the world, although he's recently quit his bid to become world champion after believing the Russian players were teaming up to conspire against and thus prevent him from winning. Such paranoia and conspiracy-minded mentality came courtesy of his childhood with his mom, Regina (ROBIN WEIGERT), although Bobby's older sister, Joan (LILY RABE), seemed to have escaped that, and thus she worries about his mental state.

That concern is shared by former chess competitor turned priest Father Bill Lombardy (PETER SARSGAARD) who's brought on to be Bobby's training partner after entertainment lawyer and American patriot Paul Marshall (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) convinces Bobby to return to competition and defeat the Russians. And that would namely be the current champion in the world, Boris Spassky (LIEV SCHREIBER), who takes on and defeats Bobby during a good will tournament in California. It's there that Bobby meets and loses his virginity to Donna (EVELYNE BROCHU).

Undeterred by his defeat, Bobby agrees to battle Boris for the world championship in a match in Iceland. But his increasingly fragile mental state -- comprised of ego and big demands, paranoia and odd behavior -- threatens to derail his attempt, all while he becomes a celebrity and public figure for America in its battle with Russia.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While watching "Pawn Sacrifice," the dramatic tale of Bobby Fischer's continued descent into madness and paranoia while being one of the top two players in chess during the 1960s and '70s, I pondered whether today's young moviegoers would believe that such a grandmaster would have been a national celebrity and that his 1972 match with top rival Boris Spassky would be an international, televised sensation.

Granted, millions of people take in regular shows and sporting events on TV every night, and passively watch tweets, Facebook posts and more on social media. But we're talking about chess, not the Super Bowl. And then I thought about the TV channels that show people playing poker and came to the realization that we already had so-called reality TV more than forty years ago.

Of course, aside from the Olympics, few other televised events have national pride at stake, and none take place in the shadow of ICBMs aimed between superpowers. But that was exactly the Cold War backdrop for the Fischer-Spassky match, and that's now been brought to the screen in this compelling drama that looks at both the match and the troubled man on the American side.

The film -- helmed by Edward Zwick who works from a screenplay by Steven Knight -- starts with news that Fischer didn't show up for the second game of the world-gripping match and instead is tearing apart his room looking for Russian (and maybe even American) surveillance bugs. That's followed by a forward-moving progression of flashback scenes showing the man as a young chess prodigy with a mother who instilled a level of "they're out to get you" paranoia in the boy at an impressionable age.

The story then quickly moves up through the teen years where Fischer has become formidable, but also demanding, self-centered and conspiracy-minded, walking out on a championship match because he's certain the Russians are working as a team to thwart his efforts to become the world champion.

He's then brought back into the competitive world via a patriotic entertainment lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) who's keen on making the Russians look bad, while teamed with a former competitor turned priest (Peter Sarsgaard) who will serve as his practice partner. The former will do anything to appease his client's increasingly preposterous demands, while the latter worries about Bobby's mental health.

Zwick not only recreates the look and feel of the era (via vintage clothing, cars, locales and the obvious use of songs on the soundtrack), but also the unstable mind of someone suffering from paranoia as filtered through a brilliant mind for playing chess. He even makes the chess matches fairly interesting to watch, something that's not exactly that easy considering most of the action, so to speak, takes place inside the players' heads with only a tiny bit of movement on the actual board.

While some have complained that Tobey Maguire doesn't seem right for playing the iconic chess figure, I didn't have any such problems. That's not only because I was a bit too young to remember seeing the real man featured on the news and in the competition, but also because Maguire sinks himself far enough into the player, man and national pawn (thus the title) that you forget you're watching the former Peter Parker and truly believe you're in the presence of a brilliant, but highly troubled grandmaster.

Supporting performances are good across the board, with Liev Schreiber believably portraying the more brutish and cold and calculating Russian champion, while Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg likewise create compelling characters.

While it isn't likely to reignite a chess craze in America, and likely will be overshadowed by upcoming Oscar contenders, "Pawn Sacrifice" is a solid piece of filmmaking and storytelling about a bygone cultural event that caught the public's attention and made a hero out of a man who wasn't looking to be that. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 10, 2015 / Posted September 18, 2015

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