“Pawn Sacrifice,” directed by Edward Zwick, spins the true tale of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire), a Cold War-era obsessive, paranoid genius. Fischer’s only life goal is to beat the infamously masterful Soviet Russian chess grandmasters, and the film’s plot follows Fischer’s quest for international chess supremacy.
Zwick guides his viewers through the entire timeline of Fischer’s life, from his genesis as a boy genius mastering the chess clubs of New York City by the age of 10 to his life and trials as a pro-circuit player. The film culminates in a World Championship showdown that pits Fischer against the best Soviet Russian player and only previous opponent to hand him defeat, Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber). The narrative does not extend into Fischer’s later years, but Zwick smartly captures those years — as effectively as one can capture many years in five minutes — with documentary-esque footage of the real Bobby Fischer.
Zwick’s rendition of Fischer’s narrative is always filtered by a Cold War screen that continually reminds viewers of the movie’s historical time and place. The Cold War is always present in this production, which is evidenced by the movie’s constant competition between the USSR and the United States. The Cold War is also present in more subtle aspects of the narrative, such as the constant presence of random photographers, who follow Fischer and snap pictures of him.
This Cold War filter might feel overbearing and unnecessary in any other story — for example, the random inclusion of spying photographers who appear throughout the story but never contribute something consequential to the narrative. But given that “Pawn Sacrifice” follows Fischer’s journey to the brink of insanity, a filter of constant and insane Cold War paranoia serves as the perfect parallel to Fischer’s own developing insanity.
Fischer’s developing insanity, which Zwick focuses on more than any other of the film’s threads, limits Fischer as a character because he never shows any redemptive qualities. Viewers never once see anything likeable in Fischer, and his roboticism points either to a deliberate (but questionable) choice from a directing standpoint or to Maguire’s inability to add variety to Fischer’s character.
On the other hand, Fischer’s Soviet Russian chess counterpart, Spassky, demonstrates his own obsessive genius in juxtaposition with real, sympathetic, human reactions. Schreiber adds all sorts of juicy, relatable life to the character of Spassky — despite the fact that a caricature rendition of Fischer’s counterpart would serve the film’s purpose — to tell the story of Bobby Fischer.
Schreiber’s expert performance may lead one to believe that “Pawn Sacrifice” might have done better by focusing on the life and journey of Spassky rather than on that of Fischer. Nevertheless, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a succulent watch because it appeals to viewers with a number of interests — from the Cold War to complex chess strategy — which demonstrates a well-roundedness that makes the film well worth a trip to the cinema.