Pawn Sacrifice and the Quest to Understand Bobby Fischer

The frustrating biopic starring Tobey Maguire doesn't try hard enough to understand its paranoid, enigmatic subject.

Bleecker Street

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.

Maguire, who is 40, still has the baby face to play Fischer, and he does just fine with the role. It’s perhaps a backhanded compliment to say the A-list actor excels at playing jerks, but that’s Maguire’s forte these days—the unhinged, the prickly, the malcontented. Though he’s rarely acted since leaving the Spider-Man franchise, he did especially strong work in 2009’s Brothers as an unstable military veteran and in 2013’s The Great Gatsby as a particularly neurotic Nick Carraway. His Fischer is an irascible pain, in a weirdly charming sort of way. He tells everyone what he thinks of them to their face, brazenly raves about his own genius, and barks non sequiturs in a Brooklyn accent at his closest friends, a patriotic lawyer named Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his fellow chess player William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), as they try and coax him toward the 1972 World Chess Championship.

It’s pretty quickly obvious that Fischer isn’t an average genius with a few foibles. He’s a dangerously paranoid man who spouts anti-Semitic views at random and is convinced both the FBI and KGB are spying on him. Zwick tries to some extent to get at the maddening conflict between Fischer’s chess genius and his mental illness, but Pawn Sacrifice always keeps its subject at arm’s length. Most of the plot follows Lombardy and Marshall trying to lure Fischer out of hotel rooms and guest houses so that he can play Spassky, treating him like a dangerous alley cat who could go wild at any moment, but never finding substance beneath that frustration. It may be impossible to know just why Fischer became so troubled, but Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t try to offer any theories beyond some garden-variety mother issues.

It doesn’t help either that chess is a tough sport to dramatize, although there have been films that capture the electricity of watching such a battle of wills unfold, like Steven Zaillian’s 1993 great Searching for Bobby Fischer (which actually had nothing to do with Fischer himself, but rather the fruitless hunt for his successor). Fischer’s matches with Spassky were some of the most significant in the history of chess, but Zwick chooses to dwell instead on his exasperating tics (loudly objecting to audience noise and creaking chairs). Schreiber gives Spassky burly, threatening physicality, but doesn’t get much else to do except growl some lines in Russian.

Really, it doesn’t feel like Pawn Sacrifice hits its stride until it cuts to black at the end and displays some title cards explaining what happened to Fischer after the notorious match. Zwick loves a meaty story, but he wants to tell it as simply as possible. When he’s dealing with heroes like Glory’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry, or Defiance’s Nazi-fighting Bielski partisans, that’s easier to pull off. But with a protagonist as difficult and fascinating as Bobby Fischer, it’s too short an order.