"Pawn Sacrifice" Misspends Rich Subject Matter

Eons before TMZ captured its first meltdown of a former child star, American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer was cracking up in style. A grandmaster by the age of 15, he would have a further two decades of wild international success – but at the high cost of his mental health. By the time he reached the 1972 World Chess Championship, the 29 year-old was a tangle of arrogance, paranoia, and anti-Semitism, doing all he could to undo his Cold War-inspired popularity.

That event’s climactic match – one that pitted Fischer against against Soviet champion Boris Spassky – is the subject of Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice,” an underwritten, overacted chess film that doesn’t seem to care much for chess. The movie – one of the “Blood Diamond” director’s weakest features to date – fails to properly contextualize either Fischer or his World Championship run, only delivering drama in fits and starts and never getting into the head of its fascinating subject.

Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man”) is workable as Fischer, especially in his most contemplative moments, and the ever-enjoyable Liev Schreiber (“Defiance”) is fine as Spassky. But Steven Knight’s screenplay lumbers out of the gate, pushing Fischer’s rock star status with the elegance of a drunken guitar solo.

Comparisons to Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger are both stated and implied through an ill-fitting rock soundtrack, a parallel that sells disastrously short the enigma that was Bobby Fischer. Supporting characters played by Michael Stuhlbarg (Bobby’s manager) and Peter Sarsgaard (Bobby’s coach) confuse the issue even further, lifting screen time that would have been better served to examine their player (or even Spassky, who’s largely a background character here).

A would-be psychological profile becomes an elementary sports movie with sloppy continuity editing and zero insight into the game of chess. Newbies will learn little and pros will learn even less as the screenplay diminishes the game to one of power moves and memory.

Zwick does find some drama in act three, with Bobby’s deteriorating mental state dovetailing nicely with some career-best playing. It’s a contrast that the rest of the piece lacks entirely, even in some scenes that should have been tap-ins.

For example, a beachside confrontation between Fischer and Spassky is so curiously staged and shot that it’s a wonder it made it into the film at all. A scene rich with thematic potential is turned into a throwaway, Maguire left to scream uselessly from an inordinate distance at his incredulous opponent.

From cast to production design, “Pawn Sacrifice” has the pedigree of a much better movie – or at least a more interesting one. Its desire to tell a small part of a historical firebrand’s story is undermined by its reluctance – or inability – to get inside his mind, reducing him to unwilling sports hero with prima donna tendencies. It’s not quite a debacle, but it lands a few mile markers away from relevancy.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 16, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Lily Rabe
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking)