Pawn Sacrifice Review

by Steve Pulaski

Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice concerns American grandmaster Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), a man who sky-rocketed from a humble chess prodigy in Brooklyn to a globally recognized name. Bobby grew up modestly but was constantly burdened by nobody other than himself. He had a very low tolerance for loud noises and persistent distractions; all he wanted to do was to play chess in peace and, in turn, be the best player in the entire world. Ironically, what he got was deafening noise and an audience of the entire world.

After making the rounds as one of the youngest up-and-comers of the American chess world, Bobby voices his desire to beat all the chess greats in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. To earn the title of the world grandmaster, Bobby would have to beat the Soviet’s greatest player, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), in the 1972 World Chess Competition. Bobby makes clear that he is not a political man; he simply wants to win and to accept all the glory that comes with being the greatest chess player of all time.

The problem is that Bobby, who already seems to be teetering on the very edge of a mental breakdown every two minutes, spends more time practicing – going as far as to practice with one of his coaches by having a verbal game of chess – than trying to cope with his mental illness. At one point in the film, Bobby is said to be suffering from a form of paranoid schizophrenia, which makes sense seeing as how, during scenes of stress or extreme concentration, Bobby begins embellishing every little background noise (a flickering camera, the tapping of a pencil’s eraser, lips smacking, etc) as if it were loud music at a house party. During these scenes, Zwick smothers us with these sounds as if we’re Bobby, victim to hearing every noise as if it were right next to our ears. These particular scenes feel very authentic and do something cinema rarely does, which is attempt to make us feel how our protagonist does in the present.

Pawn Sacrifice
Directed by
Edward Zwick
Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard
Release Date
16 September 2015
Steve’s Grade: C

With that, Maguire gives his best performance since “Brothers” in a role that challenges him in a similar manner. In Brothers, Maguire played a war-torn veteran suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder and, upon returning home, encountered an entirely new battle with his wife. His performance in that film was incredibly strong, especially the last twenty minutes, where Maguire displayed some of the most violent and unbelievably convincing acting of his career. Here, his Bobby Fischer character is burdened with the same albatross; he suffers from something he has no control over that slowly eats at him until he is entirely unable to focus. His illness handicaps him throughout his quest to defeat the Soviet chess players, and when we see how badly Bobby wants to win, in spite of himself, there is an extra layer of sadness to his struggle.

The problem with Pawn Sacrifice is it feels a bit too much like a film stuck on fast-forward. Zwick, writer Steven Knight, and editor Steven Rosenblum conduct the film with a great deal of montages, especially during the chess games, that creates an appalling lack of investment and suspense. It seems to be a sign of insecurity over the material, as if the audience that was already attracted to the material would grow bored over watching a simple chess game. The concern is logical, but when we see how Zwick handles the more crucial games we get to see Bobby play in certain detail, it’s only perplexing to wonder why Zwick decided to confine most of the game to a montage. The result, when we do get to see the cause-and-effect relationship with the players and their pieces, even if we know nothing about chess, is surprisingly gripping and naturally suspenseful, something I didn’t see happening.

Unfortunately, too, we also don’t get much development on the Soviet players, and for how great Spassky is said to be, and how assured and commendable Liev Schreiber has been as an actor over the last few years, it’s almost criminal that we do not see him nor his character shine at any point in the film. Much like Bobby’s other opponents, they are cold shells that walk around in dapper clothing and with an unfazed smug on their faces.

Pawn Sacrifice can be a great many things; sometimes an engulfing thriller about dealing with one’s self, a suspenseful sports film, and a nicely edited and acted biopic, it sadly suffers from a presumable lack of confidence with its source material, in addition to a lack of development. It’s a film to watch, digest, and to try not to forget on bigger terms than just its singularly strong performance what with the multitude of great film surely upon us in coming months.