Pawn Sacrifice, by Albert W. Vogt III

My dad taught me to play chess when I was roughly six years old. At that tender age I was not very good. I was certainly no child prodigy like Bobby Fischer. I think my lack of immediate skill somewhat frustrated my dad as I was not able to give him a good match. I remained interested in the game and would challenge my dad whenever he felt up to it. Strangely, this was quite rare, and he remains so until this day. Instead, the bulk of my chess skills, such as they are, were honed in my high school chemistry classroom where I spent most of my lunch breaks. Chess players are weird it would seem. I can count on one hand the number of matches I have played against my dad since high school despite getting new sets from him for Christmas and offering to play a number of times. And who sits in a classroom and plays chess during lunch in high school? To be clear, though, none of us were a Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) as the following review of Pawn Sacrifice (2014) should reveal.

I do not usually mention such things, but before Pawn Sacrifice started there was the movie rating, and it included an odd phrase that I do not think I had ever seen: “historical smoking.” This strange moment set the tone for the rest of the film. We are introduced to famed chess grandmaster and world champion—and rabid anti-communist, anti-Russian, and anti-semite—Bobby Fischer as he hides away in an apartment outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. He is in the middle of his famous world championship match against the Soviet Union’s grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), but he believes his apartment is being bugged and frantically tears through the room looking for a wire. Apparently this paranoia was bread in him at a young age as we then shift to when he was a child, staring out his window at a car with a man taking pictures of his home. He tells his mother, Regina (Robin Weigart), who when he approaches is speaking in Russian with another individual. Mom is Jewish and an ardent communist, and Bobby feels slightly brushed aside by her. Thus he retreats into his room to play chess. Such is his obsession with the game that Regina brings her son to a teacher, Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), who agrees to play Bobby. When the game ends in a draw, we see Bobby’s intense disdain for such outcomes, but also the beginnings of a brashness that are, to put it bluntly, to lead to the sin of pride on a colossal scale. As he gets older and his talent becomes more apparent, he begins to focus on Russian chess players to the point of mania. The film casts it as a sort of lashing out against his mother, but he also acknowledges that they are some of the best players in the world. The United States government also recognizes the notoriety he is gaining as a chess player and enlists a lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), to represent Bobby. Together, they also turn to Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), one of the few chess players Bobby respects, to be a sort of mentor and second in tournaments. The more Bobby plays and wins, the more he becomes arrogant and begins making outrageous demands and claims. He wants more money from tournaments; to stay in nicer hotels; accuses the Russians of spying on him; and says that the Jews are out to get him. In short, the film makes it very hard to like him, though it is equally apparent that he is a sick individual. At any rate, by the time we get to the inevitable showdown with Boris, Bobby’s paranoia is at a tipping point. Even though he goes on to achieve the title of chess world champion, he slinks into obscurity thereafter. The closing scenes of the film explain how he slipped further into madness, is arrested for vagrancy in New York once, and eventually dies in a sort of exile in Iceland still spouting his hateful rhetoric.

It should be noted that Pawn Sacrifice is based on a true story. While there is undoubtedly dramatization going on, there were aspects that were completely real. He was indeed famous, even outside the competitive chess world, and that was helped by the Cold War struggle then going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. Anyone at that time who was taking on the Soviets and winning was seen as a hero. He was also as brash and full of himself as is depicted.

However, I to not want to spend any more time on Bobby Fischer in talking about Pawn Sacrifice. Instead, I want to discuss a character I was excited about when I first saw him, and that is, of course, Father Bill Lombardy. As someone who has written extensively about how Catholics are portrayed in film, as soon as I saw him a set of presumptions immediately began ticking through my brain. In the most general sense, I assumed that they would make him not serious about his Faith. In one scene Bobby asks if he would go to hell for criticizing a priest. Father Bill responds by saying that it depends on whether or not you believe in hell. Now, the Church is quite clear on the existence of hell, so I was a bit disappointed by that statement. Still, it was refreshing to see him saying the Rosary in another scene. As always, the truth is a little more complicated. I do not know about you, but I want to see both my cinematic and real life priests practicing the kind of heroic virtue that inspires others to a deeper relationship with God. Unfortunately, far too often they are just as human as the rest of us. The film mostly shows Father Bill as a regular guy. Take off the collar and he could be anybody. That is equally true for actual priests in private. They put their pants on one leg at a time as do we, and as Jesus would have done had we worn pants. The historical Father Bill, unfortunately, left the priesthood and was accused of sexual abuse after his death. While I want to see such crimes exposed, I also sometimes get the impression that it leads to the notion that all priests were pedophiles. Like any stereotype, that idea is completely unfair. It should be further noted that most dioceses in the United States have an open door policy for people to come forward with such allegations. None of this is suggested in the film, but it is good to know the truth behind such things.

I do not know if I would recommend Pawn Sacrifice. It is well shot and acted. All the same, I did not have a ton of sympathy for Bobby Fischer. His antics quickly grew tiresome. What kept me watching is my interest in chess, and there is some sweet chess action . . . if you can call it that. But my distaste for Bobby’s character made it so that the climax of the film was not as satisfying as others. It was not satisfying for Bobby Fischer either.

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