Review: 'Pawn Sacrifice'

'Pawn Sacrifice,' follows Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), as he goes from youthful
chess prodigy to paranoid cold war pawn
AMERICAN SCHEME: 'Pawn Sacrifice,' follows Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), as he goes from youthful chess prodigy to paranoid cold war pawn—battling Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

Like the Johnny Depp-starring Black Mass, Pawn Sacrifice is a monomaniacal character study, which is supposed to leave one in awe of the lead actor's focus. Similar to Depp's portrayal of Whitey Bulger's ghoulish solitude, Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer, a 1970s chess champion, buckling under the weight of his burgeoning celebrity and teetering on the verge of madness.

Both Pawn and Mass expect that a blunt competitiveness will make us identify with a climber; movies can make us identify with anyone, as long as they're playing offense. But Fischer is a genuinely offensive guy: paranoid, mercenary, Jew-hating, insufferably arrogant and not very interested in women. One woman is shoehorned into the script, a prostitute (Evelyne Brochu). Asked what she does, she says "I screw people."

Director Edward Zwick takes it on faith that Fisher must win for the good of the USA, and to take the Soviet Union down a peg: "We've lost China, we're losing Vietnam," points out Fischer's government handler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Even hippies get their patriotism on when they see Fischer's game: "Maybe the USA isn't so bad after all!" exclaims an extra. It's tough to judge what's more clumsy, the five ton needle drops—really, The Doobie Brothers? "White Rabbit" again?—or the appeals to the flag, via newsreel montages of the USSR at its most blustering.

Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) goes flat and front-and-center, except for some Icelandic landscapes that no doubt paid for themselves in tax credits. Maguire, in endless closeup, seethes as his Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) flashes a wafer-thin, sardonic smile and walks away with the movie.

Schreiber eroded my patriotism. He keeps taking the movie into an interesting new direction that Zwick won't follow. Fisher's nerves snap audibly, and Spassky murmurs "You don't look well, Robert James." The easy way to make Pawn Sacrifice function would be to give us more Spassky—to show Spassky's own share of hard times; something that would have built to a moment of communion between the battlers. As it stands, Pawn Sacrifice encourages us to see Fisher as a Cold War casualty who cracked up to keep us free.

Pawn Sacrifice

PG-13; 114 Mins.

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