Once in a while a movie comes along that settles me down, gets my thoughts together and compels me to strum, with my keyboard. Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice did that. I realize I haven’t discussed a movie on this site for quite some time. I am doing it right now, because today I feel that it’ll not be just to keep my thoughts within the confines of my room, and the discussion to happen with a friend at a café.
I want all of you to know I love this movie. This movie started with Bobby Fischer mysteriously absconding the tournament. For those who keep a tab on Chess, may know which one. I didn’t. And we go back in time to see a young Bobby Fischer paying attention to minor details in life. As he grows, he pays attention to the miniscule, and sees pieces on a Chessboard move. Without ever moving a piece. He loves the game, and the only thing that matters to him is a victory. While the game and people around him increasingly get political, he starts reading in between the lines. Sometimes, he reads what does not exist.
He thinks the world is controlled by a selected few, and those who sincerely want to work suffocate because they control the work. From a surface, that conspiracy theory may not be completely untrue. But for a man paying attention to the microscopic, he may confuse dust with virus. A symptom with a disease. He goes down the “rabbit hole” as his coach Lombardy tells his manager Marshall. As he keeps going down, he starts miscalculating. If he starts miscalculating, he loses. He cannot stand a loss like that.
He, like a supervillain, is obsessed with the superhero. And he, like a supervillain, is way stronger than the superhero. The only difference in this real life is story is, their superpower is their intelligence, and they are people. Not aliens. They can respect each other. They mean no harm, but they do believe in celebrating their powers.
The movie plays like a thriller. With a detective tracking a serial killer. Trying to understand moves, seeing what is and what could be. His ability to perceive what could be, and demanding security from the hypothesized vulnerability makes him volatile. He cannot suppress his desires. He cannot quash his obsession catching the rook, yet, his paranoia ascends. He hears what does not exist. He pays a lot more attention to rudimentary.
I reiterate, the movie plays like a thriller. It gathered my entire attention without ever asking me to. Venerable Lombardy knows what you go through in a game which has “30 billion moves after the 4th.” He defeated a young Fischer once, and was asked to coach him. He rather calmed Fischer more often than coach. Probably that’s something you need to do when you work with prodigies. You look at Lombardy and you know he’s a priest.
Similarly, you look at Borris Spassky and you know he’s the superhero. And Tobey Maguire’s Robert Fischer is the supervillain in this saga. And this, is his story. Like making a movie on Joker and having Batman in it. While occasionally, you know that Joker is right. And because this is not a fantasy, you actually end up believing as much you should. When I say supervillain, I put it in context. You root for Fischer, because you look at what he does, and you know he’s not always wrong.
Tobey Maguire does it right. He plays it confidently, and never overdoes it. He looks at his gadgets as any skeptical person would. Just that Fischer’s skepticism is quite overboard, he does it all the time and with everything. He sees everyone with mistrust. In a conversation, he lambasts his manager. The moment is built with fury, and guilt, and awkwardness. And it is a great moment. The way it happens in reality. Maguire says a lot with his eyes. He is angry and he is scared. He is unsure of what to say, the moment is awkward, and he is filled with rage. He stops the car and steps out. Lombardy seeing all this understands what has just happened and things need to be corrected. He steps out of the car and joins a scared, enraged Fischer and plays a verbal chess with him. He speaks a move, Fischer counters it, and Lombardy follows. There is no chess board. They don’t need one. A conversation involving politicians needs quips. Sportsmen’s conversation needs moves.
I am glad that this movie is not focused exclusively on his disease. It sees Bobby Fischer as a person. A complex, greedy, overbearing genius who sees Russians as the best and believes he can defeat them all. That makes a great character. That makes a great story. That makes a great movie.