During the last scene of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the stoic Soviet chess icon Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) and the paranoid, prodigious Brooklynite Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) lock eyes. They are in the midst of their two month-long faceoff at the 1972 World Chess Championships, and Fischer has visibly lost his cool—trembling, grimacing, and looking generally deranged as he tries to plot his next move. Suddenly, Schreiber whispers one of his only English sentences of the film: “You don’t look well, Robert James.” His delivery is opaque—is he taunting Fischer into a panicked move? How closely does he pay attention to Fischer’s tumultuous personal life if he knows his middle name? Schreiber smiles coyly, but his voice, deep and reedy with a thick Russian accent, emanates concern. The raw ambiguity of Schreiber’s interaction with Fischer is indicative of what director Edward Zwick and his cast manage to pull off: an emotionally truthful Cold War drama that focuses on deep performances and effective set-pieces rather than a clear delineation of good and evil.
Tobey Maguire’s performance as Bobby Fischer is astonishing, worthy of accolades come award season. Maguire goes small—seldom does his Fischer explode or seem dangerous, but the undercurrent of his intense paranoia is always present, in the form of a tic, a vocal tremble, or a dart of the eye. He captures Fischer’s contradictions: He’s simultaneously suave and stuttering, egomaniacal and convinced he’s about to be revealed as a fraud. In a particularly gorgeous moment shortly before the 1972 Championship, Maguire crouches in the deserted apartment of his youth, on the edge of weeping with his sister as he relays his litany of fears about Soviet spying, Jewish control of the political system, and his own survival. Even while he delivers an invective dripping in bigotry and irrationality, there’s still softness in Maguire’s voice; his Fischer never loses his humanity, even as he loses his mind.
For the most part, the film’s veteran screenwriting triumvirate of Steven Knight, Steven Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson creates a realistic long durée trajectory for Fischer. The story starts with his emotional tumult in the days leading up to the World Championship, zooms back to his youth, and builds up tension as it moves through the tumultuous 1960s. The filmmakers choose to focus on particular pressure points—Fischer’s first American meeting with Spassky in Los Angeles gets more screen time than the next five, very eventful years. Most of these loci may have been chosen because of the inherent richness of their images: Schreiber listening to the Rolling Stones and dipping into the Santa Monica surf, with his suited, sunglass-wearing, expressionless entourage behind him is a fantastic East meets West moment. Conversely, Maguire looks dwarfed by the Soviet system as he angrily descends the steps of a massive Soviet hall, convinced his adversaries are cheating.
While most of the settings embrace the surreal grandiosity of Fischer’s battle with the U.S.S.R.’s chess machine, others come off as mere conveniences or necessary breaks from the more compelling geopolitical intrigue. During the Los Angeles vignette, Fischer loses his virginity at his hotel to a streetwise prostitute (Évelyne Brochu). The two don’t seem markedly affected by the meeting, and Fischer never appears with a romantic counter again. Yet we occasionally cut back to the hotel, where Brochu proudly watches her one-time fling dominate the competition on TV. Maybe the writers are trying to suggest that Fischer never had any significant romantic relationship or are simply attempting to throw some sort of sexual intrigue into the otherwise sterile social scape of Fischer’s life. Whatever the case, the inclusion feels more lurid than emotionally significant.
Other skips in logic and time also feel forced. One of the earliest chronological scenes shows little Bobby anxiously scanning the streets for FBI surveillance during one his mother’s radical leftist parties. While the young Fischer (Aiden Lovekamp) is believable and the scene gives Fischer’s mother (Robin Weigart) some necessary screen time, the whole exercise feels awfully familiar. The film may have been more effective had it dispensed altogether with the origin stories and allowed adult Fischer to be taken at face value, warts and all. The reliance on literality also seeps through with some of the expository material about the 1960s—there’s a lot of montage, news reports, and Forrest Gump-ian insertions of Ficher into famous interviews that feel archaic.
The performances, then, are the film’s ultimate saviors. Schreiber is perhaps even better than Maguire because he makes so much out of so little—his Spassky smirks, grumbles, and occasionally loses his cool with a consistency and charisma that is unforgettable. Peter Sarsgaard is predictably lovable as Father Paul Lombardy, a chess savant priest who advises Fischer, while Michael Stuhlbarg is hilarious as Paul Marshall, Fischer’s blowhard manager. Zwick would have pulled off a miracle had there been no clunky elements to a story as morally and historically ambiguous as Fischer’s. At the very least, his ability to bring out fantastic renderings and just enough imagistic clout makes “Pawn Sacrifice” a fascinating period piece.