Pawn Sacrifice (the Movie)

by admin on October 3, 2015

This afternoon, a week or two after everybody else, I finally got a chance to watch Pawn Sacrifice, the movie about the Bobby Fischer – Boris Spassky match starring Tobey McGuire.

I know that any chess player can easily find flaws with the portrayal of chess and specific events in the movie. Big flaws. But I think you have to look at the big picture and ask, was the movie true to the nature of the people and the events? And I think the answer is more yes than no. Given that the movie’s heart was in the right place, I think you can overlook the fact that many details were wrong.

First, thank god that the moviemakers did not make it into the typical Hollywood underdog-prevails-against-overwhelming-odds movie. No Rocky here. There was one nod to this kind of sentimentality when we see all the people from Fischer’s past cheering when he scores a crucial victory against Spassky. Complete nonsense. The games weren’t televised worldwide, and all of these people wouldn’t have been watching it. But even this completely fabricated scene is forgivable because it’s meant to contrast with the way that McGuire as Fischer reacts: no joy at all. His paranoia and his obsession with the quest have gone too far. And as Bill Lombardy says in one of the movie’s crucial lines, Fischer’s problem is not what will happen if he loses, but what will happen if he wins. He doesn’t know what the next act is.

You can debate whether Fischer was really so “insane” at the time of the match, and whether he really took so little pleasure in his victory, but as a visual way of telling the story and underscoring how different Fischer was from the rest of us, I think that the scene works. And it’s nice that it subverts our usual expectations of the movie hero.

Also, thank god that the moviemakers resisted the temptation to make Boris Spassky into a typical Hollywood “heavy.” They flirted with that cliché early in the movie, when we first see Spassky strutting into a tournament with his sunglasses on, but they give him a little bit of depth later on. They show a very key fact, which is that the Soviets wanted Spassky to go home and win the match by forfeit after the second game, but Spassky wouldn’t have it. I’m not sure if they get the motivations quite right, but at least movie-Spassky is not just a tool of the Soviet empire. I think that real-life Spassky was first and foremost a sportsman. It wasn’t so much that he was sure of winning, but just that he wanted the match to be played.

Finally, from the broadest point of view, there is one thing that the movie maybe gets wrong. They avoided cliché number one. But they bought fully into cliché number two, the genius who is driven insane by his art. In my opinion Fischer was a deplorable person long before he was “crazy.” But I think it would be hard to get an A-list star like Tobey McGuire to play a person who was as nasty as Fischer. So instead he has to be an insane genius.

One thing I liked about the movie is the way that they bring Fischer’s family into the story. His sister Joan tries to reach out to him and at one crucial moment he tries to reach out to her. I wish there could have been more to this plotline. After that crucial scene she just drops out of the movie except to be one of the people cheering wildly when he wins. Still, she is a welcome presence in the movie because she is the only character who relates to Bobby just as a person and not as a chessplayer.

Finally, all those pesky little details. I’m sure you could make a list pages long of the movie’s transgressions. Such as the usual cliché of having someone say “check” and everybody in the room suddenly gets silent as if it’s the end of the world. Or the historical error of having Fischer resign on the spot when he made his blunder in game one against Spassky. Or showing chess players talking about their rankings (#25 in New York) rather than their ratings. Or … or … or …

But as I said, none of this really matters. The moviemakers are telling a story, and they need to do it in a way that non-chessplayers will understand. People understand “I’m #25 in New York” better than they understand “my rating is 2300”. So just grit your teeth and bear it.

All in all, I think it’s a pretty interesting character study of a tragic figure that all American chess players have to come to terms with, one way or another. But now, can we move on? Go rent Brooklyn Castle, if you can find it, and see something about how chess is played in Brooklyn today.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Ratliff October 4, 2015 at 6:13 am

>Go rent Brooklyn Castle, if you can find it…

“Brooklyn Castle” is easy to find: it’s available for purchase and rental on iTunes. Coincidentally, I watched it last night, after seeing “Pawn Sacrifice” the weekend before. Brooklyn Castle is great!

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Jeff Mallett October 5, 2015 at 6:08 pm

>But they bought fully into cliché number two, the genius who is driven insane by his
>art. In my opinion Fischer was a deplorable person long before he was “crazy.” But
>I think it would be hard to get an A-list star like Tobey McGuire to play a person
>who was as nasty as Fischer. So instead he has to be an insane genius.

Interesting to contrast your movie criticisms with Susan Polgar’s. She also thought that he shouldn’t have been depicted as crazy so early on and that they got his personality wrong:

Fischer’s charisma and sense of humor did not come through in this movie. He was nothing like the way the movie portrayed him. Most of his “issues” did not start until well after his 1972 match (even more so after he became entangle with a religious cult). Even when you watch the clip with Bob Hope, it was filmed after he defeated Boris Spassky and won the World Championship. Bobby was very funny.
https://chessdailynews.com/a-very-different-side-of-bobby-fischer-from-what-was-portrayed-in-pawn-sacrifice/

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