Pawn Sacrifice

American chess champion Bobby Fischer prepares for a legendary match-up against Russian Boris Spassky.


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  • ★★★★½ review by Ava Davis on Letterboxd

    1. first off this is my dads new favorite movie of all time he said its a 9.8/10 so honestly u have to believe him because he's like 63 and really likes manhunter

    2. i thought tobey maguire was using an iPad even though this was the 70s when really it was a cute little portable chess thing

    3. my uncle thought that this was just a dude who looked just like tobey maguire

    4. i love the great gatsby (2013)

    5. i have been to washington square park therefore i like this movie

    6. i went to the bathroom and fell down on my way back that was rough

    7. goddamn it bobby

  • ★★★★ review by TajLV on Letterboxd

    Part of my 5 Directors x 5 Unseen Films (14) challenge.

    Touted by world media as "The Match of the Century," the 1972 World Chess Championship was held during the summer in Reykjavík, Iceland at the Laugardalshöll Arena. It pitted America's prodigious upstart Bobby Fischer against Russia's dominant Grandmaster Boris Spassky, the reigning World Champion.

    I remember all the hype leading up to this showdown. I was a college student traveling in Europe when play started in July and had returned to the United States before it concluded in August. Interest in the face-off was phenomenal on both continents.

    Of course, even before the first pawn was moved, the confrontation bore all the earmarks of a cold war thriller. Fischer had the "bad boy" reputation of a conceited, arrogant know-it-all, while his opponent was the symbol of "the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West." So it makes total sense that the competition inspired a major biopic, in this case directed by Edward Zwick from a screenplay by Oscar nominee Steven Knight.

    The film jumps right into Day Two of the championship, when Fischer (Tobey Maguire) failed to show up for the match and forfeited the game to Spassky (Liev Schreiber). As history shows, Spassky had won the opener by taking advantage of errors by the American, so the no-show gave the Russian a commanding 2-0 start in the best of 24 series. A 12-12 tie would result in Spassky retaining his title.

    Going into the competition, Fischer was actually ranked the better of the the two players, at least according to the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), which rated him at 2785 points to Spassky's second-place 2660. There was speculation that the Russian was afraid of the challenger's unpredictability.

    Because this story isn't only about a chess contest or a Cold War P.R. battle. It's also about the fine line between genius and insanity, with Fischer serving as the perfect example of how a massive intellect can easily fall into paranoia. Indeed, Zwick shows us why Fischer stayed in his hotel room on Day Two. He wasn't sleeping in or playing a mind game on Spassky. He was tearing apart telephones, wall hangings and other furnishings, looking for "bugs" used to spy on him.

    For here, we flash back to Brooklyn in 1951 and pick up Fischer's back story. Living in an immigrant family of Russian Jews, all the talk he hears at home relates to the Holocaust and the "witch hunts" for communists in Congress. His mother tells him, "There are bad people out there who want to intimidate us." Clearly, he grew up in a fearful, suspicious environment, and it left an indelible mark on his psyche.

    But even at age eight, Bobby was fascinated by chess. Encouraged by his parents, he began playing at a local church and was soon recognized as a prodigy who hated draws and played to win. B age twelve, he became America's youngest-ever national chess champion. He began studying the games of Russian masters and became the youngest player ever to reach the rank of Grandmaster.

    But he also developed an attitude, obsessed with having silence when he studied and angry at his mother Regina (Robin Weigert) for taking up with a young communist sympathizer named Cyril (Shawn Campbell). He also blamed her for his father not being in his life, and not even his older sister Joan (Lily Rabe) could convince him to accept an love their mom for who she was.

    At the Chess Olympiad of 1962 in Bulgaria, at age nineteen, Fischer had his first trial against Spassky and his comrades. He discovered, however, that in international competition the Russians played "as a team" not as individuals. What's more, their objective was to draw, avoiding losses, and thus ensuring that their place atop the world chess pecking order could never be usurped.

    Furious, Fischer dropped his first big media bomb, claiming that the Russians were cheats and FIDE was corrupt. But he didn't stop there. He said because the competitions were so unfair, thwarting his rise to become the youngest World Champion, that he refused to play anymore. He announced that he was quitting chess. Forever. Period.

    Bobby's dramatic outburst got him publicity, but it also attracted the interest of the FBI, who began keeping a watch on him. In 1965, a lawyer named Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) convinces the moody prodigy to get back in the game, as a political statement. The Russian need to be taken down a peg and beating them at chess would be a huge blow to their national ego. Surprisingly, Fischer agrees, but only if there are certain rule changes to make the contests more fair.

    One of Fischer's requirements is that his second be Father William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), the only man ever to beat both him and Spassky. There's a great scene in California where Fischer is booked into a "roach motel," while the Russians are staying at the Beverly Hills Hilton. He goes into a tirade, ready to walk out, but then he meets one of the motel residents, a prostitute named Donna (Évelyne Brochu), and suddenly the accommodations seem just fine.

    Fischer's first match back in action is against the world's number four player, who afterwards says, "It was like having a building fall on me." Fischer was just that damn good. But that gives him the motivation to make some demands, or else he won't continue. But Marshall and Lombardy get him to play on and he wins eight straight matches before losing to Spassky in the final, at least partly because he would not accept a draw and got reckless. To this point in the film, I was completely enthralled.

    As Marshall puts it, the chess matches have become "a war of perception. The poor kid from Brooklyn against the whole Soviet Empire. The perfect American story." He calls in favors from friends in Washington to see that Bobby get the limo he wants and the honoraria he deserves.

    As former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov would later say, "the reason you look at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but to the political element." Ah, how well I remember. In 1972, even people who didn't know a pawn from a rook were fanatically cheering for Fischer to "beat the commie." It became an issue of national pride.


    I posted that warning as a courtesy. There could be some younger viewers who don't know how the 1972 championship went down. But it is a matter of historical record, so I don't think it's a spoiler to give away the ending here. Everyone should already know that. But on the other hand, I don't feel the events surrounding that event went exactly as Zwick portrays them. Fischer didn't authorize this; he died in 2008. So take it all with a grain of salt, other than the outcome, which is a well documented fact.

    After California, even under the best conditions, it would take Fischer three years of winning tournaments all over the world just to qualify for the World Championship -- completing an "obstacle course" as he puts it. Yet that's just what he did, growing his ego and his paranoia with each triumph.

    Sister Joan notices his letters getting more and more crazy. A psychiatrist friend says they indicate a growing delusional psychosis. She wants him to be treated, but she can't even get through to him. But his play is so beautiful, full of such artistry, that it brings tears to the eyes of Grandmasters.

    Zwick plays Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" as Fischer approaches his goal of going mano-a-mano with Spassky for the crown of all chessdom. It's appropriate, not just because of the chess references ("the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go"), but more because Bobby has traveled deep down the rabbit hole of his own mind and imagination. And fueled by instant celebrity, he becomes ensconced within his own world, no longer living in "normal" reality.

    When we get back to "the present," post-forfeiture, it's Marshall who must get Fischer to return to the table, but now the chess champ is suspicious even of his friend and lawyer. Oddly enough, Spassky also believes his hotel room is bugged. It's becoming clear that both believe they have become pawns in this Cold War struggle, and as much as they want to crush each other, neither of them is in control of the "real" game.

    At Fischer's insistence, Game Three is held in the arena's Ping Pong Room, where it is quiet, there's no live audience, and the only camera is a stationary one used for surveillance. The American shatters the Russian in 42 moves using a totally new gambit. They draw Game Four, and Spassky's own paranoia begins to show in Game Five, which he loses. The count is now even and 2.5 games each.

    Pundits claimed that Game Six would be the decider. The winner would claim the momentum for the rest of the competition. This is where Fischer's brilliance (or insane unpredictability) took the upper hand, perfectly applying the Queen's Gambit (which he had previously ridiculed) in reply to Tartakower's Defense, and it gave him the win. Some have called it, "The Greatest Chess Game Ever Played."

    Fischer went on to win 12.5 to 8.5 in 21 games, becoming the 11th World Champion and America's first. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end for his mental health. Using newsreel footage, Zwick shows us "the rest of the story." In 1980, Fischer was arrested for vagrancy and jailed. In 1992, he had a rematch with Spassky in Belgrade, violating U.S. sanctions and making him a fugitive till he was granted asylum by Iceland in 2005, where he died three years later.

    Now, this film was a disaster at the box office, gaining only $8.4 million worldwide against a budget of $19 million. Reviews weren't terrible, but apparently chess is no longer the inspiring game it once was. And folks here on Letterboxd don't give it much love, either, but I do. This is one fine film, IMHO.

  • ★★★★ review by Andy Summers on Letterboxd

    Certain countries have dominated specific sports or pastimes over many years, either with government backing or simply due to that particular sport being the national pastime where participation seems to be a given. Most Nordic countries excel in Winter Sports such as skiing, tobogganing, or ski-jumping, but some sports are oddities when it comes to who dominates them. In the UK we've dominated Darts, Snooker, and in the Olympics, Rowing, for some reason or another. Back in the Cold War era the game of Chess was dominated almost entirely by Russia and their conveyor-belt of World Champions, until 1972 arrived and the US entered the fray with a contender to the Soviet dominance in what was more than simply a game of chess.

    Bobby Fischer's life was ripe for a decent movie about the tortured genius of Chess, anyone who had seen the fascinating documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World would have undoubtedly been aware of the controversy that surrounded him and his mental vulnerability away from the board. This film starring Tobey Maguire as Fischer delves back into Bobby's rise up through the Chess fraternity from a child prodigy towards fame and his shot at the World Championship crown in 1972. He was emotionally unstable and paranoid, utterly immersed in his devotion to a game that threatened to crack his mind once and for all, and all his insecurities are plain to see. This East versus West Cold War confrontation over a chessboard was being watched by millions on television and even more people around the world looking to see if Fischer could defeat Russian Grandmaster Boris Spassky. Liev Schreiber plays Spassky like a machine, someone who so wants to win that he'll put up with all of Fischer's antics to actually play him in Reykjavik. Even if you don't like Chess, this is a really entertaining film, full of great performances from Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and the always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg. I had trouble warming to Maguire as Fischer, as I've always hated him as an actor, but I think that was the point here, he was a tortured genius who had demons in his head when he wasn't playing Chess. Director Edward Zwick has managed to make an engaging movie about Chess, quite a feat you'd have to say, but in this case the global implications of what this Chess result meant to the world made the game an important historical event. This is again another of those films that I've struggled to find on DVD, and then hey presto it appears on Netflix, timing it seems, just like a good Sicilian Defence, is everything.

  • ★★★½ review by Tooley I Am King on Letterboxd

    Pawn Sacrifice has a ton of potential, and for the most part, Ed Zwick does a good job with the material. The climatic chess match itself is enthralling, and Bobby Fischer's mentality is shown from an interesting point of view. That being said, the film takes way too long to reach its central conflict and becomes composed mostly of exposition rather than insight. Tobey Maguire's excellent performance makes even the dull points of the film watchable, which helps, but it doesn't fully make up for the plot's overall lack of focus.

    In the end, Pawn Sacrifice is a messy but intriguing film about the life of Bobby Fischer. It may not be perfect, but it's solid depiction of Bobby Fischer's mentality during a crucial point of his life.

  • ★★★★ review by Erik Nordgren on Letterboxd

    i love chess and drama

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