Eventually I will be able to watch Tobey Maguire during a music montage and not instantly think of that horrible dance sequence from “Spider-Man 3.” One day…
“Pawn Sacrifice” stars Maguire as American chess champion Bobby Fischer, who takes on the Soviets, led by Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), in order to prove he is the best player in the world. Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg co-star as Edward Zwick directs.
I know what you’re thinking, “a movie set in the 1960s that is all about chess? How could that possibly be interesting?” And you’re kind of right; while “Pawn Sacrifice” does manage to be more engaging than one would imagine, it is never as interesting as I’m sure the filmmakers intended.
The biggest problem with the film is that the people who made it were clearly more invested into Bobby Fischer’s story than the average person will be. The film spends much of its time on Fischer’s deteriorating psyche, showing a man who at the height of the Cold War constantly was being spied on and targeted (or at least thought he was). However the film beats you over the head with the idea that Fischer is slowly unraveling. While this is partially the point, to make the audience feel the frustration that his colleagues do, it takes away from the actual chess matches.
It’s no secret that most people would not consider chess a sport, and the idea of watching people play may be the only thing more boring than actually playing it yourself. The film’s main setup is the 1972 Chess Championship between Fischer and Spassky, and there are several things working against it. First off, chess championships are whoever gets to 12 points first, wins. That means there are a minimum of 12 games to be played, really diluting the magnitude of a single match. The film treats the viewer as if they are an experienced player and know exactly what is going on, so when Fischer or Spassky makes a move and all the characters react in shock, the uninitiated (my guess, 90% of the audience) are left looking around wondering what just happened.
The climax of the film is Game 6 of the championship, which has no true defining feel or intensity from any other matches we see throughout the film. In the credits, it says that is considered “the greatest game of chess ever played,” and I would have never guessed that just by watching the film.
The film is not without its merits. Peter Sarsgaard is fantastic as William Lombardy, one of Fischer’s longtime coaches. He acts as both the comic relief and the eyes for the audience, groaning when Fischer requests yet another increase in pay, or explaining to others the importance of a move a player just did.
Maguire is more of a mixed bag. There are some scenes he completely dominates, showing the mental strain that being one of the best players in the world at such a young age puts on someone; however there are some scenes he overacts, like one where he yells at Spassky on a beach in a way that I just did not buy as realistic.
To chess fans, I’m sure “Pawn Sacrifice” is what “Miracle” is to hockey fans, but to the average filmgoer, there just isn’t enough here to warrant a viewing. Perhaps Maguire fans will get a kick, and those who enjoy period pieces like I do will be able to ooh and ah at some of the Cold War-era set pieces, but all others need not apply.
Critics Rating: 5/10