Review: Despite Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber’s efforts, ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is a draw

TORONTO – It”s quite remarkable that up until now there has never been a biopic on the life of Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of the 20th Century. Yes, his name was used in the acclaimed 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” but that referenced his potential successor. Fisher”s life and his greatest moment, a dramatic match against his Russian counterpart, are finally depicted in the new drama “Pawn Sacrifice,” which screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Fisher”s genius as a chess player first manifested at the age of 12 and by 13 he had become the youngest winner of the U.S. Junior Chess Championships. He enjoyed a spectacular rise as a master chess player and by 1957 he won the first of eight U.S. Championships (a competition he never lost). The world stage, on the other hand, was different. Rising to prominence at the height of the Cold War, Fisher was heralded as the West”s champion and he was pitted against Russia”s great champ, Boris Spassky. Their rivalry hit a fever pitch in 1972 when they faced off for the World Chess Championship title in a match that was broadcast around the world and was of supreme importance to both President Richard Nixon and Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. What many in the world didn”t know, however, is that Fisher suffered from some combination of psychosis, paranoid schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. And as the years passed his condition deteriorated to where he couldn”t play competitively anymore.  

“Sacrifice” wants the audience to understand how difficult it was for Fisher (Tobey Maguire) to interact with the outside world on a daily basis. Maguire, also a producer, is up for the challenge and he attempts to throttle up and throttle back different levels of Fisher”s mania. This is a major departure for the actor and for the most part it works, even if the closest he”s ever come to playing a character this intense was in Jim Sheridan”s “Brothers.” In fact, while watching the film it was easy to see how Maguire”s old friend Leonardo DiCaprio might have the temperament to easily step into Fisher”s shoes. The problems with “Sacrifice” don't lie with the actor or screenplay, however. They lie with the direction.

It”s hard to remember that at one time Edward Zwick was seen as a new “premier” American filmmaking talent. Sadly, you could easily argue that he hasn”t made a great film since “Courage Under Fire” almost 20 years ago. Yes, he”s had a few hits, but that success has seemingly encouraged him to become more and more of a “slick” studio filmmaker. In “Pawn Sacrifice,” that manifests itself in a movie that wants to use every trick in the book to be “period.” From different film stocks (or digital treatments) to intercutting Maguire in news reports to using real news reports from the time, it all just feels massively “produced.” The film”s screenplay by Steven Knight, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson was lauded in development circles for finding a compelling way of bringing Fisher”s life to the screen. But Zwick is so intent on including so many reports and video of the time that it pushes any subtlety to the sidelines. Perhaps he was concerned with a film about chess players not being cinematic enough? That may or may not be the case, but it”s when the epic match in Iceland between Fischer and Spassky (Liev Schreiber) begins that the film actually starts to find a grove.

The Fischer/Spassky showdown was watched around the world and, trust, Zwick will throw in enough cuts to news footage to let you know it. Thanks to Maguire and Schreiber (who surprisingly ends up communicating most of his performance non-verbally), you”ll be captivated to find out how it all turns out without Googling the results while still in the theater. The two veteran actors pretty much save the movie in these scenes. “Sacrifice” ends chronicling the rest of Fischer”s life in title cards (a recurring theme at this year”s festival) and throws in a small bit of archive footage of the real Fischer in his later years.

Zwick and Maguire have recruited an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert, but they are ultimately forgettable in the context of the storyline. Cinematographer Bradford Young has developed a stellar resume including “Ain”t Them Bodies Saints” and “Pariah” and he”s shines during the film”s Iceland scenes. 

As a biopic for Fischer, “Pawn Sacrifice” can certainly encourage viewers to research more about him. It”s just unfortunate Zwick couldn”t bring a slightly more understated approach to the entire endeavor.

“Pawn Sacrifice” was acquired by distributor Bleecker Street, which is expected to release it sometime in 2015.