Director: Edward Zwick
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard
2 (out of 5)
Great effort went into making “Pawn Sacrifice,” about chess beast Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), into a powerfully bland biopic — the kind of barndoor broad, montage- and pop hits-heavy crowd-pleaser that is “Glory” and “The Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick’s stock in trade. But Fischer is too dodgy to be made safe. “Pawn Sacrifice” knows it can’t ask us to wholeheartedly root for a figure who was not only irritable and cruel but whose mental collapse turned him into a raving anti-Soviet and anti-Semite, despite his own Jewish heritage. One can only cheer his chess moves to a point, even when we’re being shown his storied bout for the World Championship. It thus has an interesting challenge ahead of it: make us root for a guy who was unwell but also an unpleasant and often hissable monster.
For the record, it finds a kind of balance. The screenplay, by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Locke”), frontloads the film with overtures for our sympathies by getting our hero into our good graces before he starts ranting about “the Jews.” It uses his childhood traumas to explain his considerable issues. But it doesn’t excuse them. By the time he’s the bag of nerves and tics and screaming fits that is Tobey Maguire’s performance, he’s far from someone with whom anyone would want to share a room. Already a legend by the early 1970s, he was also a cantankerous, paranoid crank who had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to Iceland to do a sit-down battle with Soviet star Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, speaking his three or four lines in Russian and essentially reprising his fearsome but mysterious opponent routine from the hockey movie “Goon”).
The movie’s Fischer does some typical eccentric tortured genius bits. He blows off matches. He thinks the film cameras recording his bouts are too loud. He thinks the same of the coughing audience. He demands his squabble with Spassky take place in a tiny, remote, unadorned room, away from viewers. He also gets laid by a hooker, who later watches his big match on TV. “He took Spassky’s rook!” a fellow viewer exclaims. “Yeah, well, I took his virginity,” she adds. The humor in the film isn’t typically that big, and it tends to finds a way to turn Fischer’s slackening mental health into dark comedy that doesn’t also whitewash it. Fischer’s two partners-in-crime are a lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a priest (Peter Sarsgaard), who struggle to put up with their client’s tantrums and bigotry, sometimes in grimly funny ways, rolling their eyes as he’s stuck in yet another epic tantrum about Israel.
“Pawn Sacrifice” pulls off a neat trick, entreating us to reluctantly root for a genius who’s not only a pill but whose very genius will drive him to madness and worse. (The aftermath of his win led to long periods of reclusivity and even more swollen anti-Semitism.) And it even may even cause one to get caught up in it despite the sometime crude way with which it’s been made. Knight’s screenplay is mostly sound, even sly, but Zwick tries his damndest to bland it up. No moment of sentimentality is passed up, and fine actors — not just the aforementioned but also Robin Weigert and Lily Rabe, as his mother and sister — seem to be acting in something a little funkier, less weighed down by period sentimentality and on-the-nose music choices. Sometimes they break free. Any scene with Stuhlbarg and Sarsgaard is a treat — banter-heavy tete-a-tetes between two no-nonsense pros, briefly suggesting the knottier film that could have, under a less insistent director, been.