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Pawn Sacrifice - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Pawn Sacrifice
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Most people have heard of Bobby Fischer, even if they don't quite know who he was. If nothing else the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer was relatively well known, but that wasn't even about Fischer himself; it was about another chess prodigy hoped to be like him. Pawn Sacrifice tells the actual story of this man, who single handedly made chess so famous that it got coverage on Wide World of Sports.

He was also increasingly paranoid and deluded. Fischer is played by two different kids in the early scenes, showing him growing up as someone with narrow interest in chess and virtually nothing else. When his single mom brings home men and is giggling with him in her room, all Bobby cares about is the noise they're distracting him while he's trying to study chess. Even later, as an adult, he decides almost on a whim to lose his virginity to a prostitute (Evelyne Brochu), but even then he waits a day, opting to practice chess for a tournament match instead. "I turned down sex for this," he says.

But in the middle of all that, he gets worked up about the chance that the Russians, where the then-current world champion of chess he's challenging is from, to the point where he literally tears phones and pictures and entire rooms apart looking for bugs that are never there. This is how Pawn Sacrifice opens: with the grown Bobby Fischer alone in a secluded hotel room, tearing his room apart looking for bugs, peeking out his window looking for people he's sure are spying on him.

This is a storytelling device that is frankly getting a little tired: the film opens with the point at which the character will be closer to the end of the film, and then we flashback to the beginning of the story. In this case we go all the way to Fischer's early childhood, first actually seeing a guy in a car taking pictures at his window from across the street, and then to his meeting a chess master who winds up becoming his first teacher. We then move through several sequences showing Fischer's single-minded quest to become the youngest chess champion in history.

As an adult, Tobey Maguire is well cast as this semi-maniacal genius, his wide eyes betraying a great deal of internal struggle even when he otherwise seems calm. When it becomes clear that he will challenge the reigning champ from the Soviet Union (Liev Schrieber, a bit underused), the American government takes an active interest in supporting Bobby. The lawyer who comes to represent Bobby (Michael Stuhlbarg) enlists longtime chess coach William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) to try keeping Fischer from spinning too far out of control in the process. Lombardy is a priest at this time, which means Sarsgaard is all long black robes most of the time, although he swears and drinks too.

The story then focuses on the question of how Fischer finally came to beat the Russian, and thus the Americans beat the Soviets in this "war of perception," without having a complete breakdown. As in any movie like this in the context of the Cold War, it's all about feel-good patriotism in the end, which means that even though this is a drama about chess players, Pawn Sacrifice is largely like a whole lot of other movies we've already seen before. Fischer is just a less mentally stable Rocky who plays chess instead of boxes.

That doesn't mean it's not entertaining, though. For what it is, Pawn Sacrifice is well done. It'll do fine as something to watch when you see it on Netflix in a couple of months.

Tobey Maguire plays the nutso chess genius Bobby Fischer in PAWN SACRIFICE.

Overall: B
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