Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 55 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 5; Sex 8/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated…
One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.
Proverbs 14:17 & 16:32
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world,
but lose or forfeit themselves?
Director Edward Zwick and writer Steven Knight make a great deal of the 1972 world setting of what was billed as “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, Iceland between the American Bobby Fischer (Toby Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). They treat the match as a sporting event akin to that of the 1980 Olympic hockey film Miracle on Ice that was part of the Cold War. A victory for either side back then was seen as a great propaganda coup, proving the superiority of one system over the other. Sadly, the film can also be seen as a portrait of madness, spoiling the triumph of the man lionized by press and public during the Seventies.
After a few clips of the chess bout in Iceland, the film takes us back to young Bobby (Aiden Lovekamp) living in a small Brooklyn apartment with his mom Regina (Lily Rabe) during the era of Anti-Communist hysteria that pervaded American life shortly after World War Two ended. Seemingly more dedicated to the Communist Party and her lovers than to raising her percocious son, Regina neglects her son and is constantly under surveillance by the FBI. Thus begins what we see later has developed into Bobby’s paranoia: in one scene after he spots from their apartment window an agent in a parked car across the street, his mother tells him, “There are bad people in the world who want to intimidate us.”
The boy really takes his mother’s words to heart! We will see him as an adult numerous times taking telephones apart as he searches a room for bugging devices. Exiled to his room during his mother’s many parties for her fellow Communists, he sees in the space between the door and floor the shadows of dancing feet, a shot that will be brought back numerous times to emphasis his sense of alienation. Indeed, through a great many close-ups of objects and magnification of their sounds, we are led to share in his disturbance over the smallest of details. At the age of six he taught himself how to play chess, the game which will define his life. As he grows older his arrogance, as well as his knowledge of chess, increases. In one scene in which his mother is engaged with a lover, he storms out of his room demanding, “”I need silence, understand! I want silence!” Even at that age—his teens—he is a commanding presence, his mother offering no rebuke for his outburst.
Bobby finds chess as his means of escape, playing in New York’s Washington Square and, when he reaches his teens, coached by Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla). He emerges at 15 as a young grand master, and by 16 virtually loses touch with his mother as he enters (and wins) tournament after tournament. Adding to his troubled relationship with her is her refusal to tell him who is his biological father. He keeps in closer contact with his sister Joan (Lily Rabe) than her.
Fischer really enters the big time when sports and music manager Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) becomes his manager, recruiting the chess-savvy priest Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as companion, confidant and practice opponent (in boxing terms, sparring partner). Successfully beating opponents all over the world, Bobby sets his sights on World Champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), whom he comes obsessed with beating. Marshall is a patriot who sees the upcoming match as a major battle in the Cold War between the Soviets and America. By now Bobby, partly in reaction against his mother, has become a Communist hater, and even an anti-Semite despite the fact that he is Jewish. Bobby’s volcanic temperament comes to the fore when he quits the 1962 competition with the Soviets at Varna Bulgaria because the various players play as a team rather than as individuals, thus putting him at a disadvantage when he is scheduled to play against tough opponents while one of them is assigned an easier one. He gets his chance to play Spassky at a tournament in Santa Monica, going into a tailspin when the Soviet Grand Master defeats him.
This temperament will lead to a myriad of problems and demands when he at last faces Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavík. Prior to the games Fischer virtually tears apart the telephones and fixtures of his room, his paranoia convincing him that he is being spied upon. He makes outrageous demands before and during the match, at one time even insisting that the paying audience be banned. After he loses the first game, he refuses to show up for the second, and thus for a while it seems that the match will be concluded. After the officials agree to his demand, the tournament resumes, with most experts assuming that Fischer cannot come overcome his loss of two games. He does, and the match stretches out to 21 games. During the chaos created by Fischer Spassky himself seems to succumb, stopping the play when he hears a faint buzz, presumably coming from his chair. The officials even X-ray it, but find no hidden device planted to distract him. The announcement of the actual source of the buzz is one of several humorous touches to this otherwise somber film.
The Cold War context is well depicted, and not just with usual vintage news footage of Soviet military parades and such: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calls, offering him encouragement, and there are a couple of scenes in the Oval Office where President Nixon and Kissinger are watching one of the games on television. Thanks to Fischer and Spassky’s unprecedented chess skills, the game was BIG then, as important as the Olympic Games.
Bobby’s subsequent fate, summarized briefly by text and newsreel shots is a tragic one. Having achieved his goal of beating the Russian master, what is there left for him? Father Bill Lombardy was right on target when he observed, “Without chess he doesn’t exist.” His increasing mental illness blighted the rest of his life until his death in 2008—the film does not bring up the irony that he died in the city he had once disparaged, Reykjavík, Iceland. His fate is so different from that of the young prodigy in another chess-based film, Searching for Bobby Fisher! Also based on a true story, this 1993 film has a far happier ending because its young hero Joshua Waitzkin* has a far wiser mother than Bobby Fischer’s, one who understood that her son needed a balanced life in which his fellow human beings were as important to him as chess. This would make a fine film to see in conjunction with the new film.
* The young chess genius says of Bobby Fischer: “In the days before the event, the whole world wondered if he would show up. Plane after plane waited on the runway, while he napped, took walks, and ate sandwiches. Henry Kissinger called and asked him to go for his country’s honor. Soon after arriving, he offended the Icelanders by calling their country inadequate because it had no bowling alleys. He complained about the TV cameras, about the lighting, about the table and chairs, and the contrast of the squares on the board. His hotel room, he said, had too nice a view. None of this has anything to do with chess of course. But maybe it did. If he won, he’d be the first American world champion in history. If he lost, he’d just be another patzer from Brooklyn.”
Quotation from the IMDB page Searching for Bobby Fisher.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. issue of VP.