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SUNDANCE REVIEW: Bobby Fischer Against the World

Bobby Fischer Against the World
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

The Bottom Line

Compellingly told rise and fall of chess champion Bobby Fischer.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres

Director

Liz Garbus

Liz Garbus' documentary tells the compelling and powerful story of the late chess prodigy.

PARK CITY -- In his heyday in 1972, when he beat Russian Boris Spassky for the World Championship, chess prodigy Bobby Fischer was like a rock star, as famous and revered as Muhammad Ali. His rise from a shabby Brooklyn apartment to the heights of the chess world had caught the public's imagination, and in Liz Garbus' Bobby Fischer Against the World, the story is still compelling and powerful. It's another quality picture for HBO Documentaries, which will air the film in July.

Fischer's life (he died in 2008) has the trajectory of the American dream in reverse. Up from humble beginnings, he grabs the brass ring at 29, and then tumbles into madness and a tragic demise. Garbus and her team, aided by extensive archival footage expertly put together by editors Karen Schmeer and Michael Levine, manage to reassemble the pieces of his shattered life.

Fischer's brilliant but distant mother was more devoted to anti-war protests and liberal causes (the FBI file had a 900-page file on her), than she was to her son and elder daughter, and with no father on the scene, Bobby retreated into the internal world of chess. By the time he was 15 he was the U.S. champion. And by the time he was 16, he mother had left and he was on his own. In a parade of talking heads, which occasionally repeat the same information from different angles, Dick Cavett attests to the "horrendous" effect of fame on a young psyche.

Not that Fischer was stable to begin with. But despite his increasingly erratic behavior, he makes his way up the chess chain and eventually earns a shot at Spassky's crown. At the height of the cold war, the match, to be staged in Iceland, takes on the magnitude of an international confrontation. When Fischer hems and haws and delays his arrival, as the nation's hopes and curiosity builds, Henry Kissinger recalls in an interview that he called Fischer and bluntly told him to "go."

Garbus, a frequent presence at Sundance and grand prize-winner in 1998 for The Farm: Angola, USA, builds her film around the drama of the match. Fischer was unpredictable, which makes him a great subject, but from there it was all down hill and the story loses some momentum. Fischer stops playing chess, the game that he had referred to as his alter ego, forfeits his title, and goes into what his fans refer to as his "wilderness period."

He resurfaces for a rematch with Spassky 20 years later in a war-torn Yugoslavia, breaking a United Nations embargo and incurring criminal charges in the U.S. After Sept. 11, his long simmering anti-American and anti-Semitic feelings explode in a tirade. Given asylum in Iceland, it is shocking to see what has become of him. Disheveled with a shaggy beard, Fischer irrationally lashes out at seemingly anything that comes to mind.

So was he the victim of lifelong mental illness or other sinister forces, as he believed? Or both? Using candid and surprisingly tender shots by ex-Lifemagazine photographer Harry Benson, and an array of witnesses--his trainer, brother-in-law, and other chess masters, Garbus has put together a complex and fascinating portrait of genius wasted.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, documentary premieres
HBO Documentary Films
Director: Liz Garbus
Producer: Liz Garbus, Stanley Buchthal, Rory Kennedy, Matthew Justus
Executive producer: Dan Cogan, Nick Fraser, Maja Hoffman, Martin Pieper
Director of photography: Robert Chappel
Music: Philip Sheppard
Editor: Karen Schmeer, Michael Levine
No rating, 92 minutes