It’s been a while since I wrote. One reason is that I’ve been thinking about the Bobby Fischer film, Pawn Sacrifice. It is a hard film to describe, esp. to people who don’t play chess, but I’m giving it my best stuff.
One caveat; there might be spoilers here. So read at your own risk.
First, the movie tracks Bobby, his mental condition, his challenges, and his rise to be the 11th World Champion.
To begin, making a chess movie, or at least an interesting one, is hard. One must concentrate on a player, and what makes him interesting, and how the game of chess symbolizes something. It’s not an easy thing. And when you add into the formula of a convoluted, sometimes insane, genius it is even harder.
Let’s take a brief look into his hard-to-categorize mental condition.
He did suffer from paranoia, or at least had symptoms of it. He also displayed great anger against Jews, Russians (his word for anyone from the Soviet Union), anyone with authority, and to a lesser extent intellectuals.
Later in his life he also showed anger to the US government.
He also expressed anger and regret not being able to attend his mother’s funeral (1997) and his sister’s funeral (1998). His behavior thereafter turned darker.
Fischer, however, did not ever, or at least what is publically known, lose his self knowledge of where he was, who was around him, and even seemed to know when his reckless behavior would no longer produce the results he wanted. In fact, on several occasions when he was challenged he stopped his behavior, and then went onto another set of actions.
In the cited examples above his behavior contradicts claims that he was psychotic. But he did suffer from mental conditions.
Now let’s look at what I consider some shortcoming about the film. The biggest one, but is actually not that significant is that Tobey Maguire, who plays the chess champion, could not be as mean or dominating as Fischer could be (this is why the beach scene between Fischer and Spassky did not come across as authentic as it could have been). Without a doubt, being exactly like Fischer at his worst, would detract from the film – no one really wants to see such a person lose control.
The other shortcoming about Tobey playing Fischer, and would have been an improvement in my viewpoint, is that Maguire is about 5’ 8’, while Fischer was 6’ 2’”. Being tall was part of the Fischer persona, and making Maguire taller would have made him look even more like Fischer. This could have been accomplished by computer graphics. It was done most notably in The Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the elves taller and the dwarves shorter.. Perhaps the film didn’t have the capital to use such services.
Due to the complexity of the subject (Fischer), the filmmakers, in order to keep the film to a reasonable time, had to use individual people who symbolic of the different peoples in Fischer’s life.
In a scene from the time Fischer was checking out a hotel, a prostitute was checking him out. Whether a prostitute ever entered into Fischer’s life is unknown. The prostitute in this movie was used to show how the difficulty Fischer sometimes (and maybe usually?) had with women in his life.
Father William Lombardy, one the other hand, was a real person and a strong chess player . He was won the World Junior Champion in 1957 with a perfect score (11-0). This marks the only time that a perfect score has been recorded in the World Junior Championship. He won the IM title as a result and later on earned his GM title.
Back to the movie. He indeed helped Fischer during his rise to the top. His demeanor was one that Fischer readily identified with. The role he played showed how Fischer was most comfortable in chess; it was his comfort, his world, his solace. He also demonstrated a concern when Fischer became interested in the World Wide Church of God.
Throughout the movie there were many references to Fischer’s mental condition by people who knew him. Even some references to what may be thought of as Fischer’s mental collapse after winning the World Championship.
But no one on the screen ever says what his mental condition is or what caused it. By the way, both of Fischer’s parents were both extremely intelligent and could be described as having a mild case of anti-social tendencies.
Perhaps the best part of the film was the many little things that most chess players know about , but are outside of the knowledge of a non-player. Which delighted me so much. Call them Easter eggs.
Here are a few:
(1) Fischer was shown with a red chess book in preparing for his match with Spassky. That book was a clothed German book with all known Spassky games.
(2) Spassky really applauded Fischer after the sixth game of the match.
(3) The accusation that there was something in Spassky’s chair and the search in the lights, with the result being the discovery of two dead flies, were things that actually did happen.
(4) It has been asserted that Fischer had very sensitive hearing. Whether this is true or not, it has been become part of the Fischer legend. His (supposed) sensitive hearing was used very effectively to add drama and to highlight his paranoia.
(5) Fischer could play blindfolded and his games with Lombardy were great illustrations of that. One game was actually a game from Morphy (an 18th century American player), where he (Morphy) sacrificed his queen to win the game.
(6) Henry Kissinger’s phone call, where he greets Fischer with, “This call to the world’s best chess player from the world’s worst chess player …”, is per verbatim of the phone call from Kissinger..
Early in the movie it was suggested that the title of the movie, Pawn Sacrifice, was referencing to Fischer during the Cold War. Later on during the movie, I thought it referenced how Fischer was used by the US government to beat the Russians in one intellectual area and gain a propaganda victory.
But after the end of the film, I don’t think that is answer either. I’m not giving that information away yet 😉 .
I do recommend the film, if nothing else, for an excellent characterization of Fischer, his genius and madness.