“After the first four moves, there are 300 billion options before a chess player. That’s more than the stars in the sky.” Father Lombardy (Sarsgaard) says this by way of explaining the stress a chess player, especially a genius such as Bobby Fischer (Maguire), would be under.
The rise and collapse of American chess player Bobby Fischer is well known, from his eccentricities and endless demands to his paranoia and anti-Russia rants. Pawn Sacrifice is a look at how two superpowers in the midst of an ugly Cold War let Bobby be, as they used him and his Russian opponent Boris Spassky (Schreiber) to fuel their own agendas.
Fischer is born to a Russian Jewish mother, who at the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s is being spied upon for her Communist leanings. As per the film, it is hence that Fischer develops the first signs of his paranoia, peering out of windows and keeping ear open for sounds across closed doors. Proved to be a chess prodigy very early, he is, at the same time, confident to the point of arrogance, convinced he will be the youngest world chess champion.
In the way stand only the Russians, or more precisely Russian star and reigning world champion, Spassky. Zwick’s adroit presentation of the chess worlds of the two countries is delectable. Russia spares no expense for its star, flying Spassky around in personal jets, giving him a military salute, and putting him up at Beverly Hilton in Florida, where the first thing Spassky does is head out to the beach with its beauties, with a row of fellow Russian players lined up close behind him.
With chess considered a virtual only-Russian world, Fischer in contrast is left to fend for himself, and has to depend on donations and get by on cheap motels.
That is, till Fischer actually looks like he can knock down the Russian wall and enter hallowed chess echelons. Then America opens its arms, and how — from White House to 60 minutes. As Fischer imagines the Russians spying on him, bugging his room and poisoning his food, the authorities cater to his almost every demand, including of money. Even President Nixon himself calls to urge him to play, in the midst of firefighting the Watergate Scandal. The only one who stays away is Fischer’s estranged mother — and he lets slip how that affects him.
The climax is at Reykjavik, Iceland, where Fischer and Spassky compete for the world championship. In a now-famous episode, a paranoid Fischer, who by now has taken to wearing paperbags on his head while at airport, demands that the game be moved to a ping-pong room, away from the media and audience.
Maguire looks nothing like the 6 ft-plus Fischer, and there have been questions about that. But there is no doubt that the actor is an inspired choice for this role of a well-meaning little guy swamped by genius. Both his own, and that of others.
Schreiber as the player at the receiving end, who perhaps sees the two of them as pawns in bigger games much more clearly, is quieter, maturer, and in the end, not devoid of drama of his own.
The game, that involves kings, queens, knights and bishops, but essentially two players poring over a small table, will never look the same again.
Directed by Edward Zwick
Starring Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg