There’s No Place to Go: The Tedium of Chess and the Cold War in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

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It’s unfortunate when a trailer presents a seemingly average movie; even more so when it makes you feel like you know how the movie is going to play out before actually seeing it. But it’s most unfortunate when that trailer turns out to be the best version of the movie itself.

Written by Steven Knight and directed by Edward Zwick, Pawn Sacrifice dramatizes the real-life story of Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), Cold War-era chess prodigy and champion. In an obvious attempt at prestige candidacy, the movie falls victim to the usual biopic pitfall by relying entirely on the events as they played out, as opposed to utilizing those events to determine a story worth telling. As a footnote in history and an elevator pitch for a movie, Bobby Fischer’s life is compelling: a haughty chess whiz kid with paranoid psychosis. But Pawn Sacrifice wants to take that, emphasize sociopolitical events, throw in lazy stock footage and fake news segments, and make chess meaningful. And it just isn’t.

Bobby’s nemesis is the undefeated Greatest Chess Player in the World (and Russian), Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, whose scene donning a tight little bathing suit is the best part of this movie). Bobby has lost to him before, but attempts to upset Boris, and subsequently the whole USSR, at the World Chess Championship of 1972. While significant in the 70s and in the context of the movie, the backdrop of the Cold War presents stakes that have faded over the last thirty years. For someone born after it ended, the Cold War is not so much of a war than a pissing contest between the United States and Russia, et. al. Pawn Sacrifice takes little initiative to deliver the implications of the Cold War in a way that is relevant, and instead alienates a younger audience by relying on the experience of those who have lived through it to derive its significance.

Pawn Sacrifice is not the comeback win likely intended for Tobey Maguire. While competent in the role, his performance has little room to thrive because the movie fails to make Bobby Fischer a hero you want to root for. He has no depth of character; there is nothing more to him than a mental illness and a mastery at chess, with barely-touched-upon mommy issues. Mostly, Bobby is an arrogant prick who takes advantage of the few people who try to help him and exploits his fame for his own benefit. In order to make you care about him succeeding, the movie wanted you to be taken with Bobby’s boorish charisma, as one tends to be with an outspoken celebrity. But it could have created a significantly more dynamic character if it had spent time exploring the vulnerability caused by his absentee father and neglectful mother, or how the mental illness tortured him rather than made him insufferable. Perhaps then he could have been a character worthy of an audience’s support. Instead, Bobby Fischer is not even an anti-hero. He’s just an asshole.

The biggest flaw in Pawn Sacrifice is that at its core, it’s about chess, and the game of chess is inherently boring. By contrast, sports movies can elicit excitement even if one is unfamiliar with the game. In spite of any indifference to the sport, these films tend to feature a kind of pulsing adrenaline that transfers from the screen to the audience. Players are hyping themselves up, spectators are cheering. There’s grunting, yelling, chanting, screaming. These games have a viseral impact that cause you to be as pumped as the characters you’re watching, because it’s the frenzy of the game that forces you to be invested in the stakes. Chess, on the otherhand, lacks all of the elements that make a game exciting for anyone who is not playing it. The room is silent, the players are silent. The only intensity generated is trapped inside the mind of the person making the moves. Not even the most dramatic of scores can evoke the fervor required to engage an audience that is watching someone think really hard, especially one unfamiliar with chess and how it’s played.

The most frustrating thing about Pawn Sacrifice is that it’s not impossible to make an entertaining movie about a subject that’s dull to watch. Take math, for instance: A Beautiful Mind, while the paradigm of the dull-subject genre, succeeded more than it should have in portraying a psychologically unstable mathematical genius. It achieved the filmmaking equivalent of putting together the puzzle with you, as opposed to doing it for you then showing you its finished product. Theories of mathematics were applied to everyday situations, or otherwise visualized for those who can’t picture an equation in their head. The film led you through psychosis with John Nash as he was experiencing it, then forced you to feel his devastation as he learns nothing he experienced was real. A Beautiful Mind explored the “gift or curse” of his compromised mental state in a way that Pawn Sacrifice refused to; you empathize with the tragedy of John Nash, but tolerate the hardship of Bobby Fischer.

Perhaps for a chess enthusiast Baby Boomer, this film has more to offer, but that is a narrow core audience for which a movie should be produced. For everyone else, it’s clear the filmmakers thought they could rest on the crusade of the “underdog” United States beating Russia at something while trying to elicit sympathy from Bobby’s delusions to create a worthwhile movie, because no attempts were made at showing these things rather than telling them. Therefore, the stakes, along with any emotional involvement, are weak, if present at all. Bobby’s lawyer (turned manager?), Paul (Michael S. Stuhlbarg), implores us to understand that, “We lost Vietnam. We lost China. We have to win this.” But for the layperson who doesn’t play chess, didn’t live through the Cold War, and isn’t invested in Bobby’s journey, this imploration falls on disinterested ears. The final line of Pawn Sacrifice is exempliary of the viewing experience: “In the end, there’s no place to go.”

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