Chess Match Unmatched

DATELINE: Games People Play

Mind games are not the easiest topic for a film in today’s violent action dominated movies.

Yet, Pawn Sacrifice turns out to be a thriller of genuine caliber. Its game is deadly serious, like a virus that infects the minds of its players.

Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer with confusion and mental deterioration as the centerpiece of his performance. The chess celebrity and grand-master for Americans was a Greta Garbo of his generation and profession: he seemed to hate the publicity and fame, but played it when necessary.

Interspersed with clever historical footage of newscasters and Dick Cavett interviews, the film captures the 1960s and 1970s when the United States went kookoo for chess. It happened only once in American history—and deserved all the attention it received.

As an emblem of the Cold War, the world leaders took an interest in winning the game as a chess move between the Soviet empire and the American one. Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer were pawns indeed, like Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs of the same decade.

Liev Schreiber gives a masterful performance (all in Russian) as Spassky who seems to catch Fischer’s madness during the match. The other main performance belongs to Peter Saarsgaard as Fischer’s nemesis (Bobby does not have friends).

Edward Zwick directs this instant classic of cerebral cortex mind bending. In the grand tradition of true stories about legends in conflict, this film transcends the silent and methodical game of chess to become a flashy commentary on obsessions, popularity, and pawns in the grand scheme of life.