Star Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
If you thought there was no way anyone could make a an interesting film about chess, you’d be right. They can’t. Pawn Sacrifice stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, a man who some consider to be the greatest chess player of all time, as he faces off against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) of the USSR. Largely taking place in 1972, the film focuses on the chess championship match between Fischer and Spassky as a cold war confrontation between the super powers. Through all of this, the film chronicles Fischer’s deteriorating mental state as more and more pressure is put on the chess player and he gains more notoriety.
Playing Bobby Fischer might be the greatest role Tobey Maguire has ever attempted. For all of the shortcomings of this film, Tobey Maguire’s performance is the biggest success. At first it’s difficult to take him seriously because he sounds like a kid trying to be tough with a Brooklyn accent, until it goes on long enough and you realize thats how his character is. Maguire’s Fischer embodies someone with an immense amount of genius with an equal number of demon’s weighing him down. It’s a completely different character than his usual nice guy act seen in Spider-Man or Pleasantville. Prior to this film I had no experience with who Bobby Fischer was or his mastery of chess, but this film managed to bring an awareness to him that I think is missing from mainstream America. The film opens with Fischer having a mental break down in his cabin in Iceland, which creates an expectation of what is to come of this character the film wants you to care about. While Maguire’s performance is probably the best he’s ever given, the script gives him very little room to grow as a character. Once adult Fischer is introduced, his character remains largely unchanged through the film. His mental state increasingly deteriorates as the film unfolds, but this never builds to any sort of climax.
Pawn Sacrifice set out to be a biopic for Bobby Fischer. It shows him as a young boy all the way up to an adult. During the brief amount of time the film devotes to Bobby growing up and learning to improve his chess game, very little is shown of his home life. At one point, when Bobby is an adult, his sister shows up during one of his chess games to tell him that his mother is running away. Its a scene that should be more emotional than it is, but because of Bobby’s mental state, it’s not. I didn’t even realize until later that this random woman was his sister because I missed the line about her being his sister. The film spends so little time with his family, they might as well have not been in the film at all. During one of the early matches of the film, it seems like Bobby is concerned with seeing his mother again, but this plot thread eventually goes no where, and he continues to live his life forgetting that his mother exists. When a lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlburg) decides to become Bobby’s manager and take him to chess tournaments, he brings along a priest, Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as Bobby’s second, which seemed like a random choice, until I learned later that he was one of Bobby’s former teachers. There’s a lot of little things thrown into the script that seem random because the film provides to context to them, but can be cleared up with a simple google searched. It’s like the film wanted to focus on so many different aspects of Fischer’s life, so they skimmed his Wikipedia article for interesting information.
The film tries so hard to make you care about Bobby Fischer, but ultimately it falls flat. The film does nothing to make the chess matches interesting, apart from including some reaction shots from those watching. The film does mention what makes Fischer so impressive as a chess player, but for anyone unfamiliar with chess, this information will be useless. It includes several conversations between his friends and family about his deteriorating mind, but even those lack any sort of purpose. The film instead tries to push toward the big climactic chess match between Fischer and Spassky, when there is ultimately nothing climactic about it. The film ultimately cannot figure out if it wants to be a drama about Fischer and his mental health, or about his big win against Russia during the cold war. As a result the film ends up being a mess of things that happen without any real context or connection between anything that happens.
Pawn Sacrifice is sadly, a bad film. It doesn’t look interesting. The plot is a random collection of events that fail to form any rising action. It also lacks any semblance of a climax. It doesn’t matter if this was the best performance of Tobey Maguire’s career because Pawn Sacrifice is a horribly boring film that I could not recommend even as a humorous bad film to watch.