Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tales From the Black List: Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

* * *

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber

The story of Bobby Fischer is so strange and fascinating that the surprising thing about Pawn Sacrifice is not that it would end up on the Black List, but that a feature film based on Fischer's story hadn't already been made before the first list was published in 2005. Pawn Sacrifice, written by Steven Knight (screenwriter of Eastern Promises and the upcoming Allied), made the 2009 list and when it made it to the screen last year became the first non-documentary film about Fischer, which is kind of surprising when you think about it. You would think that a true story of an American triumphing over a Russian on the world stage would have made it to the screen sometime between the actual triumph of the Miracle on Ice and the fiction triumph of Rocky vs. Drago, but then again perhaps Fischer himself (who died in 2008) was what kept his story from getting to the screen. At any rate, Pawn Sacrifice benefits from being such an interesting story that it would be difficult to go wrong with it, though it never does manage to quite become everything that it could be even with a great performance at its center.

Although the story gets started with Fischer as a child and then adolescent, touching on his dysfunctional relationship with his mother (Robin Weigert) and the early signs of the mental health issues that would plague him as an adult, the focus of the narrative is the build up to and the playing of the 1972 World Chess Championship between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the Russian champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Arrogant, entitled, and hot-headed, Fischer makes for a stark contrast against the cool and dispassionate Spassky, who engages with the world as if from behind a wall - closed off, contained, revealing nothing - betraying no emotion except bewilderment when Fischer begins ranting and raving to everyone and anyone who will listen that the Russians have engineered things to keep him from being able to play and beat Spassky.

The two men could not seem more different but as they begin their championship showdown, the curtain is pulled back slightly to show where the two personalities begin to intersect. Both men live in the belief that they're under surveillance - though while Fischer's reaction would best be characterized as obsessive paranoia that causes him to dismantle every phone he comes into contact with to find the bug and, during the championship, to completely destroy his hotel room looking for surveillance equipment, Spassky's belief can better be described as a keen awareness that he's under surveillance by his own government, with Schreiber's performance giving the impression that this is something that Spassky has more or less made his peace with, an inescapable reality of life in the Soviet Union - and both start to let the pressure of their matchup get to them, driving themselves to distraction with the noise from the audience and the cameras (Fischer) and the suspicion that there's something in his chair designed to throw off his concentration (Spassky). Though it feels for a while like the competition is over who can make the craziest sounding accusations and demands about how the matches will be played, it eventually turns back to what it's meant to be - which is not a contest between two chess masters, but a contest between the United States and the Soviet Union to determine which is the dominant power.

By design, the film is meant to be the story of how these two men are used by their respective nations as a means of continuing to advance the idea of two superpowers at war with each other in every aspect; director Edward Zwick described the film as being about how Fischer and Spassky "were pawns of their nations." Like many films from Zwick, however, this one does more posturing about being about "big ideas" and "important things" than actual meaningful exploration of those big ideas and important things. While the film is effective enough at presenting the two men as contrasts who are ultimately opposite sides of the same coin, it falls a bit short in terms of characterizing the championship as being a matter of global importance. It does a decent job at depicting it as a matter of global interest but, aside from a scene in which Fischer receives a phone call from Henry Kissinger urging him to follow through on the plan and go to Reykjavík to play Spassky, the film isn't particularly effective at demonstrating the American government's investment in the game as compared to the very hands on interest of the Soviets, who are always there and always making their presence known. Although the premise alone does most of the work in terms of setting up the major thematic concern, Pawn Sacrifice ends up feeling like the sort of biographical movie that's only going so far as to say "this is a thing that happened" rather than actually saying something about the thing that happened.

Still, Pawn Sacrifice is a compelling movie due in large part to the performances by Maguire and Schreiber. Spassky, who doesn't wear his neuroses on his sleeve the way that Fischer does and requires Schreiber to give the sort of pensive, slow burning performance that he does so well, emerges as a fascinating figure, particularly as the movie goes on and Fischer's obsession with the idea that he's being persecuted from all angles begins to rub off on his opponent, whose calm facade begins to crumble away ever so slightly. Fischer, so brash, so outspoken, so certain that everyone is against him, is a much showier role on paper but Maguire is able to play it in a way that doesn't feel showy. The intensity, the paranoia, the egotism - it all feels deeply rooted rather than superficial, so much so that the film doesn't really need a supporting character (even one played by Peter Sarsgaard) to explicitly state certain things about Fischer's personality (like, for example, that the reason he keeps coming out with increasingly extravagant demands before finally showing up to play Spassky is because he's hoping his demands won't be met, so that he won't have to play him and risk losing). All told, Pawn Sacrifice is a solid drama about an odd moment in history when the world was captivated by a chess match (though as the film's epilogue attests, Fischer's story only got stranger from there), but it never quite digs deep enough to be more than that.

No comments: