Americans with any pop culture mileage at all remember the story of a chess player winning the Cold War. It’s right up there with a hockey team winning the Cold War, and Olympic officials and a basketball team losing it within the American myth.
This was “Bobby Fischer vs. The World,” as a recent documentary about the event named it. And so it was, a volatile, almost-certainly-mad scientist of the chess board, battling his demons, chess officialdom, the Russians and their champion, Boris Spassky. He could have lost to any one, or all of them, at any time.
“Pawn Sacrifice” gives us a wild-eyed Tobey Maguire as Fischer, a cocky young champion whose paranoia and poor sportsmanship grew with every passing day. It’s a brilliant performance, thanks in part to how Fischer is explained by his coach/second, a priest played by Peter Sarsgaard.
“This game, it’s a rabbit hole,” he says to Bobby’s fan-manager (Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”). It will “take you very close to the edge.”
In Edward Zwick’s film, Maguire goes to that edge and others explain how his version of Fischer got to where he is. He was the child of a single mom, a brilliant, Swiss-born Jewish communist (played by Robin Weigert). Her son grew up to be a virulent anti-communist and raving Anti-Semite and something of a misogynist.
But that came later. First came glory, titles and championships in his teens, a shot at the Soviets, who ruled chess for decades, passing it off as proof of “Soviet intellectual superiority.”
Manager Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg) comes along to help Fischer capitalize on his success, and make his confrontation with The Evil Empire happen.
“I’d like a front-row seat when the good guys win!”
Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard) is the hard-drinking, swearing ex-chess champ priest Bobby wants as his second, a guy with a limited tolerance for Fischer’s mood swings and tantrums. Sarsgaard sells the “magic” in Fischer’s playing with just a look, with a role that has his character explaining the game and the temperament to the audience.
It’s a trifle anti-climactic, and a little on-the-nose in the ways it uses period pop music to underscore (heavy handedly) the big moments. Zwick kind of blows the presentation of “the greatest game ever played.”
But “Pawn Sacrifice” is very good, almost the first great movie of the fall.
And for me, it’s Liev Schreiber who makes it so. As the gimlet-eyed rock-star Spassky, he has impeccable manners, swagger and the confidence of a man sure he will crush this wack-job across the table in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Schreiber effortlessly gets all that across, plus this. He lets us feel how unnerving it must have been to sit down at a chess board with a madman. There’s unease in his eyes. And defiance, before his shoulders sag into resignation. Fischer must have worn on people just this way.
As volcanic as Maguire needs to be, it’s those who react to Fischer most tellingly — Sarsgaard’s priest, and Schreiber’s Spassky — that make “Pawn Sacrifice” the gripping and entertaining history lesson that it is.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Robin Wiegert, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
Credits: Directed by Edward Zwick, script by Steven Knight. A Bleecker Street release.
Running time: 1:54