“Pawn Sacrifice” tells the story of Bobby Fischer, who put chess in the headlines and received rock-star adoration when he brilliantly ascended through the chess world and defeated Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War. Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tobey Maguire, the film is passably entertaining, but missing depth.
Zwick (“Glory,” “Defiance”) and screenwriter Steven Knight combine a character portrait with a sports drama in this story stretching from Fischer’s boyhood in 1950s Brooklyn to the 1972 Fisher-Spassky match-up in Reykjavik, Iceland.
As a boy, Fischer resents his mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), who he feels has neglected him in favor of her communist political activities. His only friend seems to be his chessboard. Soon, he’s a rising star.
Viewing the young chess sensation as a ticket to star-spangled glory, patriotic lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) becomes Fischer’s manager. Grandmaster-turned-priest Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) serves as Fischer’s coach.
The two men struggle to keep the belligerent, self-important, sometimes delusional Fischer on course as his obsession with taking the world-championship title from Spassky (Liev Schreiber) nears reality.
Fischer’s antics in Reykjavik nearly upstage Fischer’s chess playing. Fischer doesn’t show up for game two. He insists that the match be moved to the quieter Ping-Pong room.
Behind the scenes, Fischer has become hateful and paranoid. At the chessboard, however, he soars. Even Spassky applauds.
As sheer entertainment, the movie suffices. While his portrayal of the games can be chess-phobic — game six, deemed the greatest chess game ever played, unfolds with little detail — Zwick dynamically captures the exhilaration they generate.
Yet the film abounds with missed opportunities. It is far from the character-driven, mentally heated knockout it might have been.
Zwick doesn’t avoid Fischer’s unpleasant qualities, but he doesn’t provide insight into them, either. An implication that Fischer’s antagonism toward his communist, Jewish mother sparked his anti-Semitic and other disturbing views seems simplistic, for starters.
Most frustrating is the fact that this is a conventional and safe movie about a man who was truly an inimitable specimen. The story unfolds formulaically and comes complete with an obligatory love interest (a hooker played by Evelyne Brochu) and sports-film cliches including shots of Fischer’s sister (Lily Rabe) and mother looking nail-bitingly anxious when Fischer is playing his game.
Also, there’s too much of Fischer acting crazed and not enough of him simply being a regular young man. We need the latter in order to understand what has been lost as a result of fame, personal demons and Cold War mentalities.
That said, Maguire does the maniacal, wild-eyed material quite well, and is credible throughout as a chess whiz.
Schreiber is terrific as Spassky, whom Zwick presents as a bit of a character in his own right. Most memorable is when Spassky waxes Fischer-like and insists that someone has tampered with his chair.
Two and a half stars
Starring Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Edward Zwick
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes