Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Steven Knight
Starring Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, & Peter Sarsgaard
Tagline: In 1972, Bobby Fischer faced the Soviet Union in the greatest chess match ever played. On board he fought the Cold War. In his mind he fought the madness.
Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer came to symbolize both American genius and madness – a notion Pawn Sacrifice convincingly conveys. The ideological conflict of the US/USSR standoff tended to suck in everything and everybody who got too close: heart. mind, and soul. To paraphrase the JFK inaugural, a text embodying all the hopes and fears of an era, the trumpets called for the best and brightest to bear the burden of struggle; a conflict in which both sides valued, utilized, and exploited intellectuals.
The film follows Fischer’s legendary rise in the chess world, a prodigy who immersed himself in the game as a weapon against loneliness. By age 14 Fischer could easily defeat world renowned chess masters. Every waking moment of his life was dedicated to chess. In 1972 Fischer took center stage as an unlikely Cold Warrior against the suave Russian Boris Spassky at the world chess championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Pawn Sacrifice focuses mostly on Fischer’s preparation for the historic Spassky match. Convinced the CIA and KGB were plotting to sabotage his efforts, Fischer fell into a rabbit hole of paranoia: ripping apart hotel rooms to find bugs, isolating himself from people, and falling under the sway of the Worldwide Church of God, a millennial sect that tied world events to biblical prophecy. Fischer, despite being Jewish, became a vicious Anti-Semite who believed Jews were nefarious puppet masters behind world events.
The film suggests the pressures placed on Fischer contributed to his psychosis. With the press following his every move, incessant pressure from the Nixon administration, mixed in with his own insecurities all took a serious toll on his mental health.
Maguire’s performance never captures the humanity of Fischer; he remains a cipher. Liev Schreiber as Spassky exudes self assurance and befuddlement with his eccentric rival.
In the film, Fischer repeatedly listens to the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” with the psychedelic lyrics:
When logic and proportion
Have Fallen Sloppy Dead
And the White Knight is Talking Backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
The lyrics may provide a flash into Fisher’s interior world, even one of the Cold War itself. For the “Cold War” devoured many participants with madness, a seemingly unwinnable contest with no end in sight, except mutual annihilation. Fischer, like many others who encountered the darkness of the modern world, fought it with madness and ethereal creativity, only to end up the fool on the hill, a castaway character inhabiting the fringes of the collective unconscious.
Pawn Sacrifice, although not a perfect film by any means, it often feels like a conventional 21st century Hollywood generic period peace, and yet it does make for an ideal primer on a mindset both antiquated and prophetic.