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Pawn Sacrifice (2014) Review

Pawn Sacrifice was directed by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Nashville), written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Dirty Pretty Things), and stars Tobey Maguire (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Miles Ahead), Peter Sarsgaard (The Lie, Empire), Conrad Pla (Far Cry 6, Burning Mussolini), Lily Rabe (Fractured, Miss Stevens), Robin Weigert (Deadwood, The Undying), and Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan, Chuck). It’s about famed chess champion Bobby Fischer finding himself pulled in different directions by different stressors throughout the Cold War.

The Plot: It’s difficult to label the narrative on hand as a plot since it’s more of a straightforward biographical story. That is by no means a negative – streamlining a life – but it does allow Pawn Sacrifice to build linearly instead of taking a more personal approach.

By 1951, Regina Fischer (Weigert) had conditioned her son Bobby to call out any spies who’d seek to penalize her support for a Marxist revolution in the US and how to navigate questioning. All he has is a knack for chess, which is almost nipped by a loss to top New York player Carmine (Pla), who soon becomes his mentor. There’s a certain level of predictability to Pawn Sacrifice that isn’t exclusive or avoidable, which undermines the first act to a degree, but Knight’s script is no less competent for it.

By 1962, Bobby (Maguire) was well on his way to becoming the youngest world champion, but that fell through once he finds out the Soviets were cheating to draw games until the most limited player reached then-current champion Spassky (Schreiber, sporting an awful wig). With America’s attention on him, lawyer Paul (Stuhlbarg) helps to fix the rigging and allows Bobby to continue with personally selected aid, Father Lombardy (Sarsgaard), with the help of the American government. Knight’s script forges forward over the course of a decade, but keeps tabs on life just as much as chess, with Bobby’s interactions with his sister Joan (Rabe) and the government accounted for.

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Culminating with the 1972 Grand Championship between Bobby and Spassky doesn’t dispel the somewhat formulaic approach to the film, but between the start and end the story is told, with a detail-oriented summary doing acceptable work for the journey at play.

The Characters: Being a biopic, Bobby is of course the centre of attention, but a script can’t just ignore the support. Knight abides, giving the people surrounding the chess master some personality, if not the same level of detail that he receives, then at least an acceptable amount.

Bobby is a complex man with a suboptimal upbringing. His mother cared more for revolution and sleeping around than for her son, whose prodigious skill she wanted to break. With that kind of childhood, he’s set up to have afflictions. Pawn Sacrifice makes sure to document his single-mindedness and aversion to anything not related to chess. His personality is fully explored, with a nonchalance that makes him likeable when set against such a reserved sport and time period and a smartness that keeps him interesting; without Maguire, this wouldn’t be so.

While Paul and Father Lombardy aren’t compelling in the same way that Bobby is, they’re eclectic and likeable enough to make their scenes feel more valuable than ancillary to the man they’re in concert with. Paul is a man with undisclosed contacts, but his patriotism points in a logical direction. He champions Bobby to everyone around him, including Lombardy, but realizes over time that wrangling the man is going to be trouble, even if they do share a friendship of sorts.

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Father Lombardy is an unconventional pick from the real Fischer, and equally odd in the film. He’s reserved as one may expect, but dryly humorous and able to open up quickly whenever chess is involved and adds to Bobby’s arsenal since he’s the only person to have beaten Spassky.

Spassky himself comes off as an afterthought of the production, as beyond the typical posturing by his fellow Soviet accompaniment, he’s largely a blank. Maybe that’s true to life, but Schreiber doesn’t make it feel that way with his sleepwalking performance. Thankfully, the engaging characters and strong acting from Maguire, Stuhlbarg, and Sarsgaard keep the rest of the movie anachronistic.

The Drama: Zwick covers the bases of Bobby’s life very well throughout the feature, but makes interesting choices whenever the sport in question comes up. It’s almost secondary to the world’s eyes on Bobby and company’s digressions, but the understanding of stakes is always there.

Until the 45-minute mark, Pawn Sacrifice deals solely with the life and eccentricities of Bobby, creating a character and personality while stacking up the blocks in which the final showdown is built with relative ease. Getting the potential world champ on that path takes some convincing of others, which results in scenes of discussion between Paul and Lombardy, but none of himself since he’s always busy playing and replaying movements in his head, even while losing his virginity. It’s a solid setup for the obstacles that come next.

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Lasering in on such an intense sport comes at a cost for Bobby, who shuts out the majority of what’s happening around him. Soon, his life doesn’t even revolve around chess, but rather those who seek to surround him. As Paul’s contacts in high places and America’s public put more emphasis on the impact of his games, Bobby gets paranoid about the Soviets spying on him; they say a little paranoia is healthy, but Fischer surely wasn’t. Pawn Sacrifice keys in on the pressure that this places on the team, with Bobby trying to maintain his image and chess dominance with the fear of espionage, while Paul and Lombardy challenge him and mitigate the rants that reach the airwaves.

As things go on, Pawn Sacrifice gains a level of unpredictability it didn’t otherwise have, as Bobby’s mental state deteriorates along with the frequency of his attendance and win/loss ratio of games. With everything that has taken place before, the third act of the film wisely tightens the knot and relegates the world’s reaction to the background to emphasize the stakes placed not only on Bobby’s match with Spassky but those on his mind; a great decision.

The Technics: Though it didn’t boast the largest budget to recreate every game in every location, the movie has some of the best filmmaking talent to back it up and maintain the details of the prodigy and the period.

Period details are kept more than passably as the timeline of Pawn Sacrifice progresses. The Production design by Isabelle Guay (Red Rover, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and costume design by Renee April (Noel, Blindness) is terrific, with every location, vehicle, and piece of attire fitting not just the era, but the people wearing them. The priest is a gimme, but the rest of the film didn’t settle for mere adequacy. In an attempt to travel between the years, Zwick uses archival footage of historical events and figures. This doesn’t translate well and comes off as a pointlessly showy choice that doesn’t fit with the subject matter.

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A score by James Newton Howard (Parkland, A Perfect Murder) all but guarantees strong results, and such is the case here, as the methodical music matches the showdown, and the tempered pace of the entire score meshes well with the characters. Some solid camerawork from Bradford Young (Corazon, Vara: A Blessing) keeps the enterprise on an ideal level for a largely respectable technical outing for Zwick, despite some inaccuracies in the depiction of the sport.

Although the lack of answers can be frustrating and its problems predictable, Pawn Sacrifice does a very good job of tracking a man’s suffering from success and viewing just how far a cerebral sport like chess can go.

Pawn Sacrifice is available on Digital from Bleeker Street. If you’re trying to decide what to watch next, your first move should be to consult FilmTagger.

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