Pawn Sacrifice revisits one of the most unlikely proxy battlefields in America’s fight against the Soviets: the chessboard

At the height of the Cold War, a poor kid from Brooklyn dreams of being best in the world, beating the Russians and winning it for the U.S.A. He trains daily,  becoming arrogant as he obliterates rivals. After getting whipped by the reigning Soviet champion, he vows revenge and comes back  to take what’s rightfully his.

If that sounds like a sports drama, you’re not wrong. Pawn Sacrifice, the story of brilliant but troubled chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and his politicized showdown against Soviet chess machine Boris Spassky is more Rocky than A Beautiful Mind. Short on chess but long on zeitgeist, the games are depicted as battles of will expressed with intense stares. But Fischer is no Rocky Balboa, and our knowledge that he will eventually lose his battle for mental stability leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Down the Rabbit hole

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Bobby Fischer in 1960

Fischer’s paranoia started early: his family was monitored by the FBI during the red scare because of his mother’s Communist affiliations. Even at the height of fame, he was a bit off, his trash-talking Muhammad Ali attitude and rock star moodiness already tinged with conspiracy theories. Within just a few years of his crowning victory, he was a destitute recluse; by the end, he was an exile raving bizarre anti-Semitic tirades at anyone who listened.

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Maguire as Fischer

Much of the film dwells on his gradual descent, showing how chess both stabilized and unraveled him: He escapes an illogical world by solving chess problems, but his crutch is also his poison. “It’s a rabbit hole;” his coach, Father Bill Lombardy (a remarkable Peter Sarsgaard) remarks. “After only four moves, there’s more than 300 billion options to consider… so it can take you very close to the edge.” Yet ultimately, his entourage does nothing, hungry for the prestige beating the Soviets would bring and dismissing his problems as the eccentric quirks of genius. The same Lombardy also opposes sending Fischer to a shrink, likening it to “pouring concrete down a holy well.”

Lonely at the top
Boris Spassky, Fischer’s affable antagonist (Liev Schreiber) is no stranger to the demons Bobby faces. There is familiarity in his eyes as he gazes across the board: They are both pawns in a game larger than they are which has taken its toll. His own bouts of paranoia, talking to his handlers by speaking out loud in his hotel room (he knows it’s bugged), eerily mirror Fischer’s, who had TVs removed from his room, out of fear that the Russians were watching him through the screen.

At the climactic game six of the world championships, Fischer is still barely in control, stone-faced and hyperlucid.  He makes moves that defy convention. Spassky’s frown curls into a grin. In spite of himself, he gets up and applauds him – for the sheer beauty of it. The crowd joins in, but Bobby barely registers his greatest triumph. He simply gets up and walks away. “People think there are all these options, but there’s usually one right move.”, he says in his final scene. “Of course, in the end, there’s no place to go.”

 

Starts Apr 29,  Burg Kino
1., Opernring 10