‘Pawn Sacrifice’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
This well-acted and handsomely crafted biopic is not a total checkmate, but takes the queen all the same

Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber face off in the greatest chess match in history

The turbulent life of Bobby Fischer – arguably the greatest, and definitely the most famous, chess player of all time – has already been the subject of an insightful HBO documentary, while serving as a backdrop for Steven Zaillan’s laudable 1993 drama. But it’s never been recreated on screen, which is what writer Steven Knight and director Edward Zwick have attempted to do in Pawn Sacrifice, a classically helmed biopic that brings nothing new to the genre, but benefits from handsome craftmanship and solid performances by Tobey Maguire as the Brooklyn boy wonder, and Liev Schreiber as his longtime Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky.

Screening in Toronto as a Gala Presentation, this independently produced period piece has yet to land a U.S. distributor, though decent buzz following its world premiere should help rack up a few contenders. Otherwise, it stands to do moderate business in theaters, while sticking around as a durable VOD item both at home and abroad.

You don’t have to understand the rules of chess (and this reviewer doesn’t) to admire the genius of Fischer, who began playing at age 6 and quickly rose to the top, his career culminating in the breathtaking defeat of Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship, after which he disappeared from the public eye and descended further and further into madness.

Flash-forwarding to the famous Reykjavik match that had the whole world on the edge of its seat, the script by British screenwriter Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke) then tracks back to Brooklyn in the early 50’s, where young Bobby (Aiden Lovekamp) lives with his mom (Lily Rabe), a left-wing activist associated with the Communist party. Growing up in such a household during the Red Scare years is, as the film implies, the source of Bobby’s burgeoning paranoia, which takes on troubling proportions when he prematurely becomes the “Da Vinci” or “Mozart” of chess – as he’s referred to by his hardworking manager (Michael Stuhlbarg) and devout trainer (Peter Sarsgaard).

Taking us through the usual biopic ups and downs as Fischer makes his way from New York to the big leagues, the film doesn’t break any new ground in terms of style or structure, with Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) delivering a fairly standardized package, albeit one that’s both polished looking and compellingly performed, especially when the U.S. upstart plays the Russian champ for the first time in California.

It’s there that Maguire, who impressively channels the chessman’s erratic gestures and penetrating gaze (though he doesn’t quite nail the Prospect Heights accent), comes into his own, revealing Fischer’s growing obsession with a man who represents everything he despises: Communism, coolness and a certain comfort in the game. Wearing sunglasses and speaking Russian like a pro, Schreiber is terrific as the reigning Soviet heavyweight, containing all emotion while showing that he’s man enough to respect his competitor, not to mention admire the American way of life.

But Bobby remains as paranoid as ever, and his obsessions become increasingly harmful to both himself and those around him, nearly sabotaging the grand, nail-biting finale in ‘72, which was memorable as much for Fischer’s unbearable conduct as it was for his brilliance. And while he’s clearly his own worst enemy, Pawn Sacrifice also shows that Fischer was used as a mascot for the fight against the Commies, pushed by his government (he gets a pep talk from Henry Kissinger at one point) to win, even if he was ultimately fighting the inner demons that haunted him from the start.

Cinematography by Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) uses neutral tones to convey the solitary world in which Bobby lived, culminating in the Iceland-set standoff where at one point he trashes a house filled with some highly attractive Scandinavian furniture (courtesy of production designer Isabelle Guay). A workable score by James Newton Howard is accompanied by tunes from popular acts of the time – Jefferson Airplane, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Doobie Brothers – which, like movie itself, are go-to choices that get the job done.

Production companies: GMK Productions, Material Pictures, MICA Entertainment
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Live Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Gail Katz, Tobey Maguire, Edward Zwick
Executive producers: Dale Armin Johnson, Josetta Perotta, Glenn P. Murray, Julie B. May, Stephen J. Rivele, Christophe Wilkinson, Kevin Frakes
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Isabelle Guay
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
Composer: James Newton Howard
Sales: CAA/WME (U.S.); Lionsgate (International)

No rating, 114 minutes