Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: September 16, 2015 Released by: Bleecker Street
Unorthodox, Brooklyn-bred chess genius Bobby Fischer is the subject of this well-crafted biopic which dramatizes a world championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland against composed Soviet sensation Boris Spassky in a sport deeply coveted by his country during the Cold War (in the summer of 1972 before the tragic events at the Munich Olympics). It may not be as emotionally ingratiating as Steven Zaillian's Searching For Bobby Fischer inspired by another chess prodigy but it manages to have more substantial intensity than many viewers might anticipate.
It took awhile for Pawn Sacrifice to get a theatrical release, and it may surprise many how Tobey Maguire (The Great Gatsby, Pleasantville) inhabits the frenetically off-center Fischer. Even though the real man who finally lived in exile in Iceland till his 2008 passing was more imposing than a still somewhat boyish Maguire (best known for Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films).
Edward Zwick, who came into his own with films like Glory and The Last Samurai also directed stellar co-star Liev Schreiber (Russian-speaking Spassky) in Defiance opposite Daniel Craig delves into how Fischer's childhood (raised by a Communist, as well as Jewish, single mother) shaped an obsessive, unhinged anti-Semite.
Before the height of his popularity after a climactic duel with Spassky after half a dozen games in their memorable encounter (with the heavily-publicized and televised match interrupted because of monetary need and a 'new' locale) , Fischer's rise as prodigy holds firmly onto genre tropes while the filmmaking isn't as audacious in its way through its subject's strengths and mania though exerting some subtle allegoric aura.
Nevertheless, it's good to see Maguire display more adult acting chops as Fischer loses his way for a while before an attorney really into chess (a cigarette-smoking Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man) becomes his 'pro bono' overseer. A versatile Peter Sarsgaard (Lovelace, An Education and married to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal) helps in the quest to quell the Soviet supremacy of the sport as the officious adviser, as Fischer's 'second.' And, the intensely cerebral Schreiber makes Spassky a very compelling figure in a film that arguably reaches an acme during an extraordinarily heated competition. If this pre-Internet, probing Pawn sacrifices or ping-pong prevails with less gutsy maneuvers.