Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Reason for the Rating: Brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking
Plot Summary: Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer battles mental instability as he also rises to prominence in the Cold-War era of politicized world of international chess championships.
PopFam Recommends: Not for everyone, but history buffs and chess fans in your home will likely find this story interesting.
Pawn Sacrifice has a lot going for it. Recounting the story of Bobby Fischer's life and his world-is-watching showdown with Russian chess champ, Boris Spassky during the height of the Cold War era, it's filled with fascinating moments. Additionally, and a little surprisingly, Liev Schreiber is riveting as arch-enemy, Spassky, playing him with the subdued viciousness of a cat toying with a mouse. Were the whole movie about Spassky, this one might have been an Oscar contender.
The film struggles at times, though, to wrap a coherent package around the life of the troubled Fischer. Part of that seems to be a script that tried to cram too much into too little screen time, but the bigger issue seems to be a directorial misunderstanding of how plot and art must work together to tell that story. Edward Zwick is truly an artist as a director, but the problem is that frequently he lingered on the imagery (for instance, long shots of Tobey Maguire's maddened face as he stumbles headlong into crippling paranoia), making a static, drawn-out painting on the screen instead of deftly telling the story of that painting. The frequency of this kind of directorial shutdown makes for an often slow-paced, occasionally dull viewing experience.
Sadly, Tobey Maguire also seems overmatched in his role at the caustic, paranoid chess prodigy. Fischer is presented here in one dimension: Awful. It makes it hard to believe why so many people gathered around to support and try to redeem him. From beginning to end, Maguire gives us no reason to root for his character. Perhaps that's why Schreiber's layered portrayal of Spassky shines in comparison. In a few short scenes, with very little dialogue, Schreiber delivers a nuanced, full-featured person caught in the same world of passion and patriotism as Fischer, and he makes it seem like we're watching a real person. Maguire always seems to be acting his part, which is fine, but just falls short for me.
Still, the historical detail and insights into how this simple chess match became a political event between two world superpowers is fascinating. It's worth watching just for that perspective on recent history. Although Pawn Sacrifice is too slow and a little jumbled to appeal to everyone, history buffs and chess fans in your home will likely find this story interesting.
There's only one bonus featurette on the Blu-ray edition of the movie, but it's worth watching."Bobby Fischer, The Cold War, and the Match of the Century" sets the movie in context with a grounded, coherent explanation of what was going on at that time. (In fact, you may want to watch the featurette first, before you watch the movie!)
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