There are a few ways one could structure a biopic. One would be to celebrate the public image of a renowned individual and play up their endearing qualities for dramatic effect. Conversely, a biopic could also be presented as a juxtaposition of one’s public image and delve into the private, perhaps darker side of a public figure’s persona. In Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, we get a bit of a hybrid of these two approaches.
In the film, we follow the story of Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire, “The Great Gatsby”), the man who would become one of the most renowned chess players in the world. We see how Fischer’s fixation on chess began as something of a coping mechanism from his home life as a child, and how it would catapult him to stardom in his field. Fischer is soon recognized among the best and most eccentric chess players on the scene, and he ultimately achieves the opportunity to face the Soviet Union’s chess legend Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, “The Butler”) in the 1972 World Chess Championship while battling his own inner demons.
It must be said, the creative team behind Pawn Sacrifice gets a lot of things right in the construction of this movie. Especially with a large amount of the screen time being taken up with people playing chess, an activity that many audience members may find taxing, the film’s drama and tension ensure that the storytelling is crisp and efficient, and with first-rate cinematography at play, most notably in scenes shot in Reykjavík, Iceland, there is rarely a dull moment on screen.
What’s more, the movie has the benefit of a remarkable cast. McGuire, most notably, truly commits to the role of Bobby Fischer, portraying his pseudo-rock star status in the world of chess as well as his paranoid neuroses with conviction and a definite realism. Liev Schreiber is an ideal foil for Maguire and effectively plays the duel role of a respected elder and an omnipresent rival to Fischer.
The one main criticism to make about Pawn Sacrifice is in the aforementioned approach to how we view Fischer throughout this movie. In most ways, the character we see is an unlikable person. He is combative, generally lacks social skills and has a heightened sense of entitlement. However, what helps us buy into his story is that, despite his flaws, Fischer is a fascinating individual because of his talent and fixation for chess and because of the warped view he has of the people and the world around him. While we may not care to meet this persona in real life, on the screen, we can’t help but be compelled to see how his story plays out.
The issue with this is that when he achieves his moment of triumph at the film’s end, it’s difficult to tell if we’re having the emotional response that the film-makers had intended. In the movie, the music swells, and every cue tells us that Fischer has achieved something remarkable, and that we should be happy for him. And yet, with the people he’s scorned and hostility he’s demonstrated previously, the moment isn’t quite on target.
Like its leading character, Pawn Sacrifice may be far from perfect, but for everything that it gets right, the film remains an effectively compelling and endearing exploration of a conflicted mind.