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Pawn Sacrifice

Time to keep on plowing through that backlog of awards hopefuls. This time, we’ve got Pawn Sacrifice, which tells the story of Bobby Fischer and his rise to chess superstardom, culminating in his historic match with world champion Boris Spassky. The film also chronicles Fischer’s deteriorating mental state, as he spirals into intense paranoia, delusional psychosis, and possible hallucinations.

Fischer (as portrayed by Tobey Maguire, who also produces), is depicted as an arrogant jackass with a nasty tendency of proclaiming to all the world that he’s the best there ever was. He hates stalemates, he can’t stand losing, and he talks like winning is all that matters. You might think that such a person would thrive on attention, but Fischer mostly uses his fame and skill purely as leverage to get his way when he’s acting like a total diva. In fact, his newfound fame and his escalating conflict with the Soviets have trapped Fischer in a terrible feedback loop: As more journalists follow him, Fischer is constantly growing more paranoid that people are tapping his phones, poisoning his food, and getting caught up in some huge global conspiracy somehow involving the Jews and the Soviets.

I should probably add that Fischer is himself a Jewish man, raised by a Communist single mother. So it’s possible that his bigotry is somehow tied to hatred of his mother or hatred of himself, but the film never bothers trying to overtly connect those dots.

Anyway, Fischer keeps demanding more money, he wants complete silence, he wants fancy hotel rooms; he keeps piling on one demand after another and constantly threatens to stop playing chess unless he gets his way. It’s possible that Fischer is only acting like a petulant child because of his insanity. Or maybe it’s his ego talking, and he knows that everyone is so damned set on seeing Fischer play that he knows he could ask for the moon and someone (probably chess fanatics or the American government) will agree to foot the bill. But the characters offer a potentially intriguing alternative: That Fischer could be making all of these demands with the hope that someone will say “no”, and he’ll have an excuse to bail out. After all, what would it do to Fischer if he came all this way just to lose? Or hell, what if he comes all this way and he wins?

When all is said and done, all that Fischer really wants is to be left alone. A huge part of why he loves chess so much is precisely because it’s pure, cold, quiet logic. The board makes perfect sense to him, especially so long as it’s just Fischer playing against himself or there’s only one other person at the board to deal with. It’s everything outside the board — politics, group strategy, interpersonal connection, and the random noise of everyday life — that he doesn’t understand. It’s almost like there’s no filter between him and the outside world, so he simply takes everything in with no idea of how to process all of it. That’s a huge part of why Fischer’s nascent fame is so destructive to him, and there are many times when his erratic behavior nearly destroys his career. But at the same time, it’s Fischer’s fame that leads him to make such a huge impact on global politics, and his overactive senses are precisely what made him a chess prodigy.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of putting us in Fischer’s headspace, usually through strategic use of extreme close-ups, staggering sound design, and countless mental breakdowns acted out over extended sequences. Yet the movie stops just short of making a point about mental illness. It’s like the filmmakers were aware that schizophrenia exists, but they don’t have a creative or constructive statement to make about it.

Then there’s the matter of how the film treats chess. The filmmakers do their absolute damnedest to make chess accessible and exciting, and though the results are uneven, it’s great when it works. The filmmakers also show a clear understanding of why Fischer’s rise to prominence and his match-up with Spassky are important. The movie goes on at great length about how the world is watching this chess game, how the USA and USSR are putting their reputations on the line as intellectual powers and noble sportsmen, and so on. And then we get one truly fascinating scene that ties chess to mental illness — the logic goes that there are more possible 40-move chess games than stars in the galaxy, and anyone who could effectively keep track of all those possibilities would have to have gone down the rabbit hole.

If only the film had gone a step further and applied that concept to Spassky.

As portrayed by Liev Schrieber, Spassky is pretty much a total enigma. We barely learn a thing about him, and I don’t think he had more than two or three expressions through the whole film. This doesn’t make sense to me. As Fischer’s equal and opposite, the man who’s already been through all the trials and traumas that Fischer is going through to become the world champion, it makes sense that Spassky would have his own collection of eccentricities and emotional baggage. But if he ever did, we never learn a thing about them here. And in a movie about the ultimate confrontation between two representatives from countries in a Cold War with each other, so completely failing to develop one half of that conflict was a HUGE missed opportunity. Portraying some common ground between these two main characters could potentially have done so much to raise the stakes of the conflict, not to mention advance the themes of mental illness and international conflict.

In fact, all of the characters here are quite limited. I don’t even think they qualify as characters so much as performances. I saw Liev Schrieber acting stoic, I saw Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg act exasperated, and I saw Tobey Maguire act like a screaming lunatic. I saw a whole lot of people acting, but I could never buy into the illusion that any of them were actual people.

This brings me to the main problem of the film, and it’s a problem with a lot of Oscar-bait movies: It was clearly made for the purpose of impressing critics and Academy voters, instead of telling a story or making a statement. The filmmakers chose an important period in history (the Fischer-Spassky match), but they don’t show very much passion for the event itself or any idea of how to make it relevant for modern audiences. So it’s nothing more than a conflict to turn into a plot. They chose a problem that a lot of people care about (mental illness), though they don’t have anything new to say about the problem or how to fix it. So it’s nothing more than an excuse for the actors to cry.

Pawn Sacrifice had tremendous potential, but it’s obvious that the filmmakers had little interest in telling a story or making a statement. Its sole interest was in showing what deep and tortured performances the cast can give in front of the camera while showing what crazy and stylish things the crew can do behind the camera. The end result is a film that’s technically competent, but flat and inconsequential.

This is another one that’s only worth paying attention to if it succeeds in actually getting any nominations.

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