With the chess drama/biopic Pawn Sacrifice, it appears like filmmaker Ed Zwick is trying to find his inner Ron Howard. To be sure, this is a well made and competent movie all around, but only on occasion that does it rivet like it sets out to. Tobey Maguire is excellent and the set up is effective, but the end result just leaves something to be desired. Everything about this look at chess master Bobby Fischer appears on the surface to be a surefire Oscar hopeful. You have Zwick directing, a script co-written by Steven Knight, Maguire in the baity role, James Newton Howard doing the music and Bradford Young as director of photography, but it never quite comes together. This is one of those situations where it’s almost a toss up as to whether I’d ultimately go two and a half or three stars, but since it would be such a lukewarm endorsement in the end, after thinking on it for a while I opted to go with the lower score. That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing, at least as a curiosity, but things are decent far too often instead of engrossing, hence the Howard comparison. It’s done in a way to try and appeal to everyone, but in doing so, it winds up limiting its appeal strictly due to a dip in quality. Zwick is usually a far more compelling filmmaker, and as such, I can’t actually recommend Pawn Sacrifice. It was a designed as an Academy award contender, but in the end, it’s mostly just a pretender.
This is a look at Bobby Fischer, the enigmatic genius and chess master who briefly captured the attention of the world. We meet Fischer as a young boy, upset by his mother Regina Fischer (Robin Weigert) for her Communist leanings, suspicious of all because of her politics and the men who seem to be parked outside, and hurt by her lack of attention, but enraptured by the game of chess. Fischer is introduced to a local chess master (Conrad Pla) and quickly develops his skills. By the time he’s become a man (played then by Maguire), he’s clearly going to be the best in the world. He wants to dominate the competition, notably the Soviets, who have a stranglehold on the game during the Cold War. In particular, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) is their prized player, so Fischer sets his sights on him. With the help of a well connected attorney Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a former player turned man of the church Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a series of matches are set up. However, the hints of emotional disturbance and mental illness that has cropped up periodically for Fischer begins to come out fairly consistently, putting his reputation, the chess games, and much more on the line. History tells us how it plays out, but there’s some intrigue in seeing how the parties involved got there.
If there’s one unimpeachable aspect of the film, it’s the performance turned in by Tobey Maguire. He easily turns in some of the best work that he’s ever done here. Maguire is angry, intense, and unafraid to be unlikable, giving us a portrait of Fischer that aligns with the man we saw in news reports throughout his life. At times the flick gives the character less than interesting things to do, but his performance is never uninteresting. He especially does a good job of playing up the man’s paranoia. In a better product, Maguire would be in the thick of the conversation for a Best Actor nomination. No one else here is on his level, but everyone is pretty solid, that much has to be said. Peter Sarsgaard gets the runner up prize here, playing a character with some nice lines and more of the emotion within the film than anyone else, while Michael Stuhlbarg has the other role with the most screen time as the man cleaning up after Fischer. Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg have been better in the past, but they’re good here and remind you of how effective they can be. Liev Schreiber seemed to have the juicy role of Spassky, but it’s an almost silent performance for most of his time on the screen. I see what the filmmakers were going for, and it works early on, but when we’re in the third act and we get to hear Schreiber, it just makes you wish that they gave him more to do. He tries his best, but the material lets him down. In addition to the aforementioned Conrad Pia and Robin Weigert, the supporting cast includes Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Aiden Lovekamp, Lily Rabe, and more. Maguire is without question the standout though.
I tend to really like Ed Zwick films (even some of his supposedly “lesser” works like Love and Other Drugs), so that makes Pawn Sacrifice certainly a disappointment in my book. Again, it’s competently made, but so by the book it just seems to often be going through the motions. It’s a shame too, because in addition to Steven Knight’s script that he co-wrote with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, you have the previously mentioned score from James Newton Howard and cinematography from the great young DP Bradford Young. Both Howard and Young see their work under-utilized and lost in the somewhat standard issue biopic. The screenplay is by the book and too often the direction follows, which is a bummer, considering how effective Knight can be with his pen. Zwick especially comes up short in depicting the chess games. If there’s one place I expected him to shine, it was there, but alas, that was not to be. Oddly, the movie shoehorns in Fischer’s antisemitism and attidues towards the Jewish people towards the end, mostly shrugging it off as an afterthought. That bugged me, and I’m not sure why. As always, Zwick gets nice performances from his cast, but aside from Maguire, no one blew me away.
Ultimately, what we have in Pawn Sacrifice is a missed opportunity to really make a fascinating biopic of a figure who remained enigmatic his entire life as well as turn chess into an actual dramatic sport. Maguire does his best to pull you through and this manages to entertain at times, but when the end credits roll, you do feel like there was more that could have been done with the material. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on this one, and I certainly expect more of my colleagues to disagree with me than agree, but I was let down. Undoubtedly, you can do a lot worse than Pawn Sacrifice, but sadly…you can do a whole lot better as well.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!