Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” has all the crazy elements that make up that emotion: loss, retrieval, betrayal, insanity, glorious breathtaking moments, heartbreaking crashes complete with the exhilaration of falling from an airplane without a parachute.
Zwick is one of my favorite directors, because he knows that a movie (“Glory,” “The Siege”) must, by definition, move with a capital M, and “Pawn” does. If you know with rich detail the story of Bobby Fischer, you’ll have myriad opinions, but if you’re too young to remember him, or only have a scant idea of the Cold War era, you’ll spend the last half of this film holding your breath and gripping your seat, because “Pawn” is also a thriller, a genuine intellectual thriller, and we don’t get those every week in the cinema.
We meet Bobby in 1950s’ Brooklyn as a child prodigy (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) living with a Communist activist mother (the truly amazing Robin Weigert) who sleeps with her comrades between pamphlet writing and taking her beloved Bobby to the winter parks to beat stunned older players.
Bobby grows to be THAT Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) surrounded by the bodies of all who opposed him across the boards. Bobby has no friends, only the board, chess magazines and his sister (Lily Rabe).
As in all thrillers, there is “the other side.” The Cold War is throbbing, and America and the Soviet Union are in need of warriors, especially intellectual heroes to embolden their brands.
John Le Carre had his “Smiley” and “Karla,” here, we have our Spassky and Fischer.
Shadowy forces send Paul Marshall (the great Michael Stuhlbarg), a razor-smart lawyer and probably an agent, to enlist Bobby to win one for the home team, no simple job. Bobby, always egomaniacal, always suspicious, has grown into a fully bloomed paranoid psychotic shifting from shadow to shadow.
Marshall wisely brings in an old childhood friend of Bobby’s, Bill Lombardy, now a priest (Peter Sarsgaard).
Together, they are tasked with getting this erratic dark prince of chess to the final tournament, a feat comparable to dining with a bomb-carrying terrorist. At any moment, they know Bobby could shed his mortal coil and destroy them all.
Having defeated everyone who can spell checkmate, Bobby is ready to cross his Rubicon. Boris Spassky (a well chosen Liev Schreiber speaking perfect Russian) is waiting and eager on the far side, calm, gentle, smiling, courteous and deadly. After 114 minutes of watching Tobey Maguire in the best role of his career, possibly his life, Zwick takes us to the field of chess Armageddon. This is the breathtaking part, as all the players across the world watch, listen and hold their breaths, as Bobby makes two moves never before seen.
Aside from Maguire, the cast is diamond-perfect, from three line players to full characters. Stuhlbarg, as Bobby’s shepherd, proves again what a great character actor he is from the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” to his Arnold Rothstein in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Peter Sarsgaard as the patient priest is his usual cool and perfect charmer. But it’s Maguire who owns the film. What a crowded front aisle at the Oscars this will be.
Zwick is blessed to have the gifts of cinematographer Bradford Young and the editing of Steven Rosenblum, both cinematic magicians. And it was fun to hear Al Green singing “It Ain’t No Fun To Me.”
“Pawn Sacrifice,” the first stunning surprise of autumn.