At one point in Pawn Sacrifice, someone mentions that there are more potential 40-move chess games than there are stars in the galaxy. If only there were that many approaches to a Hollywood biopic.
Edward Zwick takes a disappointingly schematic look at the life of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, whose ascent to international renown was matched by an ignominious endgame of mental illness and misguided racism. In charting this, the film does something few other biopics can be accused of: fails to make a compelling case for its subject's greatness. Zwick relies far too heavily on montages and title cards to give the gist of Fischer's brilliance without showing who he was as a person or even as a player.
Because of this, there's no real forward momentum. The script takes so long to settle on one period of Fischer's life — namely the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Iceland, where he took on rival Boris Spassky of the USSR — that the movie feels like a highlight reel rather than an in-depth study of the man many still consider the greatest chess player of all time. Conventional biopics are tiresome even when done well, but this one has too flimsy a grasp on its deeply troubled protagonist to even succeed as an actor's showcase. It's all breadth, no depth.
Tobey Maguire — who, like Zwick, is better than he's sometimes given credit for — isn't done many favors by the material, which reduces Fischer to a series of outbursts and delusions. His dominance in tournaments the world over comes hand-in-hand with a growing suspicion that the Soviets have it in for him. The more his starpower increases, the longer his list of irrational demands grows. Pawn Sacrifice traces this paranoia back to the prodigy's childhood, when his mother instilled in him the notion that bad people exist in the world and are out to get him and his family for political reasons. Rather than grow out of this perception as he gets older, he allows it to take hold of him.
Zwick is no stranger to difficult men and their accomplishments, having also directed the likes of Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond. Vanity and mental illness make for a toxic blend in his latest hero, though Fischer is as wary of the praise he receives as he is of the skepticism. It isn't quite validation from others that he seeks; he already knows he's on a completely different level than any of his peers. What he wants is indisputable evidence so that everyone else knows it, too.
Everything else in his life suffers as a result. It's as though all the mental energy usually spread among activities most of us take for granted were funneled into one ability at the expense of all others. We're presumably meant to cheer Fischer on as he advances from one tournament to the next, but doing so feels like enabling an ill man's compulsions. The same is true of his handlers, who, by necessity, likewise become complicit in his mental downfall. Catering to his increasingly outlandish whims reinforces Fischer's belief that he actually needs his food to be prepared in front of him lest the Russkies succeed in poisoning him.
As a microcosm of the Cold War, the Fischer/Spassky rivalry mostly serves to highlight the conflict's absurdity. Liev Schreiber makes for a cerebral, no-nonsense grandmaster who acquiesces to his opponent's many eccentricities in order to see who's the superior competitor. He's far more reasonable than the man on the other side of the chessboard, whose technical wizardry is so next-level that everyone around him is willing to overlook just how unmoored he's become.
What draws us to such figures? Is it the sense that they're different from us — unreachable geniuses to be looked at through glass, like specimens in a museum — or the hope that they're similar enough that we, too, might achieve a certain greatness? In Fischer's case, the former seems more likely. The only thing Hollywood (and, in many cases, moviegoers themselves) love more than a singular genius is a singular genius whose talents are either responsible for, or at least related to, a tormented inner world. A Beautiful Mind, Amadeus, scores of others — though we find the connection between genius and dysfunction tragic, we also seem to find it comforting. Most of us will never be as good at anything as Fischer was at chess, but at least we're not worried about the KGB conspiring against us.