Pawn Sacrifice

Posted by Joel Copling on September 24, 2015


Two observations are made about the two central conflicts present in "Pawn Sacrifice," intoned by the same character. "It's a war of perception," says the lawyer assigned to our chess prodigy of a protagonist, about our setting (the time in the Cold War was looming upon the people's consciousness), and later, he says about the match about to happen between the chess prodigy and the officially third-best chess player in the world, "It'll be World War III on a chess board." The point is that war as a reality and an ideological extension is constantly on the minds of these people. This is at the heart of Steven Knight's screenplay.

This is another way of saying that the tournament that took place between Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), the self-proclaimed prodigy, and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the officially determined one, is secondary to what it represents--a match equally as ideological between the countries from which they hailed as it was intellectual between the men manipulating the pieces. Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), the aforementioned lawyer, engages in a political discussion about patriotism with Fr. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a former, friendly rival of Fischer's who once beat him in a game. But the good father distills the conversation by pointing out how chess works: "Four moves in, more than 390 billion possibilities present themselves." This is not a game for everyone.

As we get a sense of the man, we realize this is a game for him, however. Fischer is an individual borne upon paranoia by a mother (Robin Weigert) whose Communist leanings were consistent fodder for a repeated mantra of what Fischer as a child (played at two different ages by Seamus Davey Fitzpatrick and Aiden Lovekamp) must tell those in authority who ask about her friends. He is also likely psychosomatic, twitching at the smallest distractions during chess matches and making a list of demands that the match coordinators must follow on threat of forfeiture. Maguire excels at playing both the nuanced moments of appraising his possibilities and the explosive mood swings to which Fischer was sadly inclined (That Fischer would disappear from public life for more than a decade comes as no surprise on the evidence here).

Spassky is given his own complexity by way of Schreiber, whose take on the adversary here is perhaps far better than it needed to be. The man is a conflicted soul more affected by Fischer's paranoia than he would likely admit (such as in a scene where he confronts an invisible Fischer in his hotel room). The matches between these two are fittingly tense moments (Director Edward Zwick smartly realizes that the tension of a chess match lay as much in the faces of the competitors as in the pieces being moved and utilizes the strength of the close-up to great effect), and the final series of showdowns is positively arm-clenching (especially for those versed well enough in the art of the game but unfamiliar enough with the real story to notice some spectacularly unexpected moves).

More important again, though, is what all of this represents. Knight is fascinated by the sociopolitical effects of this game, equating war with chess whenever he can risk it within the dialogue. It might not be subtle, but it's indicative of the effect for which Knight and Zwick are aiming. The 1980s was a period of tumult and conflict beyond human control. Here is a game that humans could control, and so be it if it was on a world stage. How fascinating "Pawn Sacrifice" finds the possibility of the "world stage" in this case being a game held in the ping-pong room of the actual world stage, and how fascinating it is that the film finds the paranoia within Bobby Fischer to be equivalent to the paranoia of a generation.

Film Information


Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Fr. Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight.

Rated PG-13 (brief language, sexual content, historical smoking).

114 minutes.

Released in select cities on September 18, 2015.