It was the Miracle in Iceland.
With a heavy dose of crazy.
In 1972, at the height of the Cold War — and some eight years before the United States men’s hockey team stunned the Soviet Union national team at the 1980 Olympics — American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer squared off against Russian legend Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, in arguably the most hotly anticipated and widely covered chess championship of all time.
The Russians had dominated the world championships for 24 years. The mercurial Fischer was considered perhaps the most talented chess player in the U.S. history, but few gave him a prayer against the seemingly unbeatable and unflappable Spassky.
Think “Rocky III” at the chess table —i f Rocky were an increasingly paranoid loner who made outrageous demands, loathed the media, was convinced his phones were bugged, routinely showed up late or not at all for important matches and was virtually incapable of having any kind of normal relationship with friends or family.
Oh, and the whole world was watching.
Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” is an enthralling piece of mainstream entertainment that captures the essence of Fischer’s mad genius, perfectly re-creates the tenor of the times AND works as a legit sports movie about the great game of chess, which, let’s face it, doesn’t quite lend itself to the sporting-drama arc as readily as football or hockey or, um, cricket.
In an extended flashback sequence set in the Brooklyn of the 1950s, young Bobby Fischer (an excellent Aiden Lovekamp) is a chess-obsessed kid living with his single mother (Lily Rabe), a social activist with ties to the Communist Party. Mom is always chain-smoking and hosting meetings in the living room where everyone is talking about revolution, while Bobby keeps a lookout for the feds who frequently stop by to snap photos of the house.
As Bobby tears up the local chess scene, defeating top-ranked local players three times his age, he attracts the attention of an attorney and manager (Michael Stuhlbarg) who’s well-connected in the ways of the chess world, and a priest and grandmaster (Peter Sarsgaard) who trains Bobby and is the closest thing Bobby has to a friend and father figure.
Zwick adheres to the standard sports biopic conventions — montages of the protagonist in action, news footage, scenes featuring the man who will becomes the protagonist’s ultimate rival — as we follow the now grown-up Bobby (Tobey Maguire), who devotes every breathing moment to two pursuits: becoming the greatest chess player in history, and fending off the growing list of enemies, real and (mostly) imagined, who are out to get him.
Whether you’re well-versed in the ways of the Sicilian Defense, Najdorf Variation, or you can’t tell a rook from a knight, “Pawn Sacrifice” does a stellar job of exploring the complexities of chess and the rich history of the game without getting bogged down in too much inside baseball.
We get graphics reminiscent of “A Beautiful Mind” to give us a glimpse into the critical thinking of Fischer. Sarsgaard’s character acts as a commentator of sorts during the matches, cheering Bobby’s brilliant moves and throwing his hands up in frustration when the great one pulls an inexplicable stunt.
Tobey Maguire’s a talented actor, but I’ve never found him particularly likable, even when he was playing Peter Parker. Here, though, Maguire gives the performance of his career — an authentic representation of Fischer’s genius, his somewhat charming eccentricities and his sad, inevitable decline into a full-fledged paranoid who became his own worst enemy and famously faded into a shell of himself.
As Boris Spassky, Liev Schreiber deserves best supporting actor consideration. Schreiber’s performance is in Russian, save a very few lines in English. (Fun, odd fact: Schreiber has spoken Russian in four previous movies.) With the help of a script that gives Spassky a few key moments to shine on his own, Schreiber takes what could have been a standard-issue villainous Russian role and creates a character nearly as fascinating and complex as Fischer. It’s a mesmerizing turn.
Fine acting abounds in this film. Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) is a standout as Bobby’s manager, who is fiercely devoted to Fischer for what he claims are purely patriotic reasons. Sarsgaard gives his usual fine performance (though I could have done without the affectation of the priest constantly sucking on hard candy). Robin Weigert is heartbreakingly effective as Bobby’s mostly absentee mother. Lily Rabe does strong work as Bobby’s sister, who tries and tries to connect with Bobby, even after she knows he’s lost to his own narcissism and paranoia.
We see footage of the real-life Bobby Fischer at the conclusion of “Pawn Sacrifice,” and if anything he seems even more bizarre than Maguire’s interpretation. It’s a reminder one should check out “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” the great documentary about the chess master.
As a stand-alone work of fiction, however, “Pawn Sacrifice” is one of the best movies of the year.
Bleecker Street Media presents a film directed by Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.