Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

 Pawn Sacrifice

Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond) directs a sweaty and intense portrait of Grandmaster chess player Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice".

This sweeping biopic reminiscent of Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind" is told with bits of flashback, focusing on the young man Fischer enthralled by the sheer variety of game moves and frightened by the encroachment of others. The film spends most of its energy in the late 1960s and early 70s, when the U.S. was involved in a cold war with the Soviet Union and Fischer had his sights set on Boris Spassky.

As played by Tobey Maguire, Fischer is pale tense and fretful having the impression of Kafka. He is just as anxious with human silhouettes against a door as he is transcendent in the sacred game. His stress was not without basis. As a kid in the 1950s, his mother was involved in communism.

Fischer grew up under the spectral eye of ghosts.  Days are for rehearsing moves and going to the bookstore for biographies and manuals, while nights are for goblins.  Given this terror, and conflict with his mother  (Robin Weigert) chess is his only solace. Fischer rejects human contact and intimacy. When shaking hands with an opponent, it is as if he is touching a cold fish, his face a sheet of blank paper.

He becomes consumed with the idea of facing Boris Spassky and defeating him. Fischer becomes a literal chess machine, executing most moves in seconds.

When he meets a nonchalant and preening Spassky (Liev Schrieber), the film acquires the apprehensive allure of a James Bond film. Fischer is confrontational and aggressive while Spassky is either offhand or bemused with his adversary, often seeming as if he just arrived from a spa treatment.

The crux of the film shows Fischer with rock star fame as he is poised in battle with Boris, in a war of his own, mostly with himself.  Shocking it is to see the quiet boy emerge into an unbending, harsh and arrogant man. Fischer was a hero at a time of wars: one hot, one cold when America needed a national shot of hope.

If he wins, and he usually does, Fisher's face is deflated or passive, far from elation. Most interesting are the scenes depicting Fischer as fragile, worried about his mother while rejecting her contact.

He piques the interest of Donna (Evelyne Brochu) who offers sex but once in bed, a robotic Fisher reveals that chess is his only lover.

Fischer's lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhberg) hires Bobby's childhood rival, Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) now a priest, to keep an eye on the increasingly phobic Bobby. The two go over moves in their heads, further emphasizing that chess is both a love and a sacred ritual.

The singular most striking element is that Fischer feels personally attacked when losing a game, betrayed as if a cuckold. In one telling moment, he loses and exiles himself to lonely beach. The lone pensive figure clothed and sitting in a suit and tie upon the flat and vacant beach creates a Dali tableau.

Chess made a spiteful love and ultimately unhinged Bobby Fischer, who became obsessive and delusional, yet still revered in game circles. Tobey Maguire is wholly this man and it is clearly his best role in years. Although the contents are glossy at times with little notion of mental causes and effects, we get a full sense of this master and how he was perceived on the pop chessboard.

The biggest trick of "Pawn Sacrifice" is that we pull for this cool and impersonal young man and imbue him with the glare of an underdog, despite his increasing selfishness.

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