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Movie Review: 'Pawn Sacrifice'

The well-acted but dull Pawn Sacrifice does nothing to the elevate the game of chess.

Review by Matt Cummings

The game of chess is more than the strategy on the board, but the war going on inside the minds of the opponents. Analyzing moves and counter moves is just part of the neuroses which makes a chessmaster, sometimes resulting in odd quirks and even destructive psychological disorders. And while the Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice encapsulates some of that into a professional production, it relies too much on the personal struggles which its players endure, rather than balancing it with the brilliance of the game.

Arguably the greatest chess player in the world, Prospect Heights-born Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maquire) is also its loudest. Raised in a Communist household at the height of The Red Scare, a young Fischer turns to chess as a way to calm his distracted mind. But controversy and disappointment are never far behind, as years later he loses a vital match against a team of Russians without meeting their master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Fast forward to 1972, and Fischer has dropped out of the public eye, until his opponent-turned-priest-turned-trainer (Peter Sarsgaard) and lawyer/manager (Michael Stuhlbarg) get him back into professional competition. Soon, the cantankerous Fischer is demanding a rematch against the cool Spassky, which takes both to a classic showdown in Reykjavik. The result will make history, but seal the fate of at least one of these champions.

There's something definitely missing from Pawn, as if Director Edward Zwick was close to checkmate but had to settle for a draw. Performances by Maquire and Schreiber are solid, and Zwick has a handle on the look of the time. But unlike Ron Howard's terrific Rush - which put a slick edge to 1970's Indy Car racing - Pawn lacks that sense of style, plodding through drama as if it's stuck in mud. More importantly, Pawn fails to celebrate the timeless sport of chess itself, making each move seem pedestrian and uninteresting. I wasn't expecting to see chess turned sexy, but Zwick takes no initiative to the teach the audience about the game or to make the pieces anything more than silent witnesses. I wasn't expecting the figures to jump out and start speaking, but Zwick could have shot the play better, choosing unique overhead and closeup angles to get the audience more involved. At the film's beginning, I was convinced Zwick was about to hand us a masterpiece, as Fischer imagines each move, which becomes diagrammed on the screen. But, that magic simply disappeared.

Maquire does his best as the snippy and unstable Fischer, whose paranoia of literally everything around him leads to his ultimate demise. But in it, Zwick and Co-Steven Knight take the wrong path, choosing to highlight Fischer's upbringing instead of the epic chess series and the effect it has on Fischer's spiraling neuroses. There was even a re-match of the two titans years later that I think could have provided for better drama than the stolid few glances Schreiber and Maguire eventually exchange. Surprisingly, they're in few scenes together, which burn white-hot and represent the film's best scenes. There's a mix of both 70's-era classic rock and a nice score by Composer James Newton Howard, but it's not enough to press the slow-burn strategy of Pawn into something magical.

In the end, Pawn Sacrifice is saved by its solid performances, but is constantly hampered by a lack of style and grace, two elements that make chess so appealing. It screams Oscar bait, but this King will have to take a draw.

Pawn Sacrifice is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking and has a runtime of 114 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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