The director Edward Zwick is, with all due respect, a master of the formulaic true story. Many of his best-known works—Glory, The Last Samurai, and Love and Other Drugs—are biopics of one kind or another, telling inspirational and dramatic tales of history crammed into neat three-act plot structures. With his latest film, Pawn Sacrifice, Zwick encounters his greatest challenge yet: trying to fit the life of the publicly paranoid, narcissistic chess genius Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) into the most straightforward narrative possible. Like all of Zwick’s works, it’s perfectly watchable fare, but it’s often infuriating for its refusal to dig deeper into its incredibly compelling subject.
Pawn Sacrifice hits all of the grace notes of the biopic genre. Viewers see Fischer as a child, raised by a socialist, Jewish single mother (Robin Weigert) whose views he’d later rebel against. He takes to chess at a young age and blasts to stardom, becoming the U.S. champion in his teens and by his mid-20s turning his eye toward the World Championship, held by the enigmatic Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). The famed Fischer-Spassky match is the narrative crux of the film—it’s both Fischer’s greatest triumph and the beginning of his public meltdowns, which ruined his career and eventually saw him exiled from the United States. Zwick doesn’t want to shy away from this part of Fischer’s life, but he also has no idea how to engage with it meaningfully, which hobbles the film’s ambitions.