The following review, reprinted from the Oct. 1993 issue of VP,
would make a good follow up to the new film Pawn Sacrifice.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian (AWAKENINGS, JACK THE BEAR and THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN) makes an auspicious debut as director of this fact-based family film about a chess prodigy. By focusing in closely on the chess pieces, quick camera cuts, stirring music, and the drama of children and parents stretching themselves to their limits, Zaillian and his fine cast manage to invest the chess matches with as much excitement as a basketball game. You don’t have to be a chess player to find that this is a fascinating film, more about people, relationships and life values than the game itself.
In the Paul Newman classic film THE HUSTLER Eddie Felton describes the pool hall where he reigns supreme as “my church,” a holy place in that it is the home of the game that he can play better than almost anyone else. He feels “called” or “gifted.” Although he is only seven years old Josh Waitzkin feels the same way about chess, a game to which he is drawn after seeing the regulars playing it in a corner of Washington Square in New York’s Greenwich Village. Much later, during a national tournament the camera gives us a close shot of a statue of the Virgin Mary and then pans over her and scans the room where the young people will face each other across rows of chess boards, the gothic architecture of the room giving it a cathedral-like appearance, perhaps a reference to the scene in THE HUSTLER.
Young Josh is fortunate to have adults in his life who collectively manage to help him become a well-rounded human being, and not just a chess freak. (We see many news clips of Bobby Fischer throughout the film, as young Josh comments on him, several times mentioning Fischer’s dropping out of sight.) Laurence Fishburne’s Vinnie, a regular Washington Square chess player, teaches Josh how to play aggressively and fast, whereas his official teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), once a Grand Master Champion, forces him to visualize the game in his head and to think a dozen or more moves ahead.
Josh’s father Fred (Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter, encourages Josh to develop his gift, and when he and Bruce begin to push Josh too hard, the boy’s mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) forcefully intervenes, ordering Bruce to leave their home. Her sense of balance in life is well summed up in her comment to Josh, “You have a good heart, and that’s the most important thing in the world.”
That this balance is a rare thing is shown at various times. In a humorous scene the tournament director states that he wants those present to act like adults and not to get into any conflicts; we think he is talking to the kids, but the camera pulls back to reveal that it is the parents whom he is addressing. Sure enough, shortly after the tournament begins, the vociferous parents have to be ejected from the playing room. Josh’s major rival is so totally enveloped by chess that his teacher has taken the boy out of school and instructs him day and night in nothing but chess. This is something that Bonnie Waitzkin vows will never happen to Josh and pretty soon she is joined by her husband in the struggle to help their son become a well-rounded human being.
This is a good film that every Little League parent, or all adults whose desire for their children’s success burns brightly in their hearts, should see. In the story of Josh we perceive that it is more important to instill a sense of decency and respect into a child than competiveness or urge to win, though the latter are by no means disparaged. And the necessity of overcoming the fear of losing is well handled. That Josh learns his lessons well, both those of his teachers and of his parents, is shown in the tournament in which Josh, realizing that he can beat his formidable opponent in thirteen moves, offers to settle for a draw. Later he tells his father, “I tried to give him a way out.” What parent wouldn’t be proud of such a son? This is a boy who might well be the next world chess champion, but he will not be a Bobby Fischer–as much as he loves chess, he loves people even more.