Pawn Sacrifice is a tense, uneasy paranoiac tale framed by the leisurely game of chess. Based on a true story, we follow Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) from youth as a curious chess prodigy to adulthood as a world-class chess champion. While the story seems simple, the Edward Zwick directed film is anything but. From a young age Bobby is a troubled character, he seems to become immersed in the world of chess as a way of dealing with his somewhat unconventional home life. Fischer’s mother, a Russian immigrant, insists that the family are being spied on and constantly warns her son of particular vehicles and strangers who could be potential spies. Bobby carries this neurotic and unbalanced behaviour into adult life and especially into his career as a chess champion. Bobby’s need for certainty in his personal life seems to be satisfied in the game of chess, one move always followed by another. However there is no certainty or peace in the rest of Bobby’s world or mental state, and these two clashing ideas are constantly at odds with one another, with no concluding victor.
Bobby is played intensely and terrifically by Tobey Maguire. Maguire’s youthful facial features are weathered by paranoia. His usually bright eyes are framed by ever-present dark circles and an expression of torment and fear. While the audience might be used to seeing him as a shy and retiring character, he plays this erratic and difficult persona extremely well. Peter Sarsgaard also deserves a mention as Bobby’s clerical confidante and advisor, William Lombardy. Sarsgaard is quiet, contemplative and seemingly resigned to the dangers of this game with Bobby’s particular mental state.
Pawn Sacrifice is located in a specific time period which adds much resonance to many aspects of the film. Set during the height of the Cold War period, the tense times socially are mirrored in Bobby’s constant state of mental tension. Bobby’s main opponent also happens to be the Russian Boris Spassky (Live Schreiber), which only increases Bobby’s persistent belief that the KGB are following him. The world championship games take the entire globe by storm, numerous news reports are shown throughout the film and the final matches are broadcast to the world on a massive scale. I found this somewhat difficult to reconcile as I can’t imagine chess having the same hold on an audience today, also not being a huge fan of the sport my comprehension is further impaired. Nonetheless, at this time the chess star was akin to the rock star and that cannot be denied. It was somewhat humorous still to watch the Soviet chess team parade around in sharp suits and sunglasses like a kind of mafia group.
There is a constant build throughout the film and that build is culminated in Bobby Fischer VS Boris Spassky. Everything has been leading to this for Bobby, one quote declaring, “For him (Bobby), Vietnam and The Beatles never happened.” This should be where Fischer shines and lives his dream, but ultimately it is where it all begins to unravel. One could argue it had been unravelling for Fischer his entire life, but the closing scenes in the film describe a distressing and pitiful remainder to his days. Pawn Sacrifice is heavy in symbolism, emotion and plot, but it is a fascinating watch nonetheless. Even if the historical and psychological aspects are beyond your grasp, you can brush up on your chess rules and ruses for future adversaries.
Pawn Sacrifice will launch on Amazon Prime Video from Sunday August 13th