Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Pawn Sacrifice"

From 9/09/15 press screening: 
(The Coast News 9/25/15 print edition)

I dig biopics.  They inform, inspire, enlighten and entertain.  And they put actors to the test and boast some of the best acting.  Consider in recent years, "The Imitation Game" (father of modern computing Alan Turing), "The Theory of Everything" (astrophysicist Stephen Hawking), "The Wolf of Wall Street" (stockbroker Jordan Belfort), "Rush" (Formula One race car drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda), "Lincoln" (President Abraham Lincoln), "The King's Speech" (King George VI).   "Pawn Sacrifice," directed by Edward Zwick, is no different.

A paranoid Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire, "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Great Gatsby") is shown frantically tearing his room apart for bugs, fearing that he's being watched and listened to by the Soviets.  Flashing back to his boyhood, we see a troubled kid from Brooklyn with a hostile relationship with his mother, Regina (Robin Weigert).  A single confrontation so intense reveals a deep-seated anger for being kept in the dark about the identity of his father.  His childhood scenes also show his neurotic tendencies, including being severely bothered by the slightest noise.  Every sound is grandly amplified.  

Singularly obsessed with chess, Bobby is self-taught.  He continues to play and beats his rivals in one  match after another, gaining prominence by becoming the youngest U.S. chess champion at the age of 14.  A child prodigy,  he pretty much raises himself.  He maintains an arm's-length relationship with his sister, Joan (Lily Rabe).

With his star rising, Bobby attracts the attention of a big-name lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who offers his services pro-bono so that he could help Bobby navigating terms for competitions around the world.  A priest who once beat Bobby, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Saarsgard), tags along to provide mental support and assist in strategic preparations prior to each match  With each movement, there are so many possibilities and risks.  

Paul and Father Bill both play a role in keeping Bobby, often manic with paranoia and delusions, focused and in check.  Although it's inevitable that when Bobby's behavior grows more erratic and demands more outrageous, they become more of an enabler, particularly Paul.  At one point he has the toughest task of all, making sure that Bobby actually shows up for a high-profile match.  Highly volatile and combustible, Bobby has no qualm of pulling out at the last minute or walking out of a match.  

Facing the press and the cameras, there's narcissistic sarcasm in Bobby's responses, as far as his perception about himself and his opponents.  Humorous as they may sound, he truly believes those twisted views as reality.  

Bobby eventually faces Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the Russian grandmaster, first in California and later in Iceland.  In contrast with his hot-mess and anxious persona, Boris sports a cool look and silent confidence.  A man of a few words, he's always surrounded by an entourage and gets the best amenities, to the utter dismay of Bobby.  

The world championship in 1972 in Iceland is the focus of all championships and it is as tense as it can get.  The scenes are optimally shot, zooming in on the chess clock, maneuvers of pieces on the board, facial reactions and body gestures of the actors.  News footage from the past are interspersed with the games.  You don't necessarily need to know the rules of the game in order to become absorbed in the film.  Maguire personifies the polarizing figure and does it in spades.  And kudos to the filmmaker, as chess, unlike a physical sport, is not easy to translate to the big screen,

The championship is held at a time where America needs a public boost the most, amidst the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate.  Bobby delivers that and chess mania sweeps the nation and the world.  As controversial as he is, he becomes an idol.  

The closing scenes show the real Bobby onscreen and flashes of his life events, deteriorating post winning.   In the end,  the greatest opponent of the greatest chess player in history is not Spassky or any other grandmaster.  It's Bobby Fischer himself.  He's a pawn of his own inner demon.  

Brisk and blistering, "Pawn Sacrifice" is a captivating character study about a prodigy, player,  champion and pawn.