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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Zwick’

One of the more peculiar distractions of 2021 has been an occasional background buzz of speculation about whether we will be seeing Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire back on screen, possibly together, before the year is out. Normally studios cleave very enthusiastically to the there-is-no-bad-publicity maxim, so when they refuse to comment on the presence (or not) of a star in one of their films it’s a bit out of the ordinary, to say the least.

Perhaps one of the reasons this has gathered so much traction, in Maguire’s case at least, is the fact that he seems almost to have dropped off the face of the earth in the last few years. His last major role was in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby (to be honest I’d forgotten he was in that), since when it seems like he has mostly been concentrating on producing and exec-producing, the resulting films being variously very good (Nobody), fairly indifferent (Z for Zachariah), and distinctly rotten (The 5th Wave). Perhaps one of the reasons he knocked acting on the head, at least temporarily, was the relative failure of his last vehicle, the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, directed by Edward Zwick.

We’re back in the realm of the true-life sports drama here – well, sort of. Maguire plays Bobby Fischer, who is one of those late-20th-century-figures of great significance in his own little sphere – in this case, the world of chess. After some framing material with Fischer clearly on the point of throwing a major wobbly in Iceland in 1972, the film jumps back twenty years to his youth, as the son of a Marxist Russian Jewish immigrant and… well, his father’s identity is left vague (apparently the favoured view currently is that the fluid dynamics expert Paul Nemenyi was Fischer’s biological father). Having taught himself to play chess, and gone on to play it obsessively, Fischer makes a splash at the local club and soon finds a mentor and trainer.

His prodigious abilities inevitably lead to celebrity and the international circuit, dominated at the time by Soviet players. With Communist chess dominance being seen as a sign of ideological dominance, the Soviets are ruthless when it comes to playing as a team against their lone American opponent. By this time Fischer is already showing signs of arrogance, volatility, and paranoia, and quits international play in disgust.

However, he is lured back to the game by lawyer (implied to be a front man for the state) Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), with chess-master-turned-priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as his counsellor and second. The Americans see the possibility of opening a new front in the Cold War by deploying Fischer against the Russian world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), regardless of what effects the strain of such an undertaking may place on his fragile mental health…

I think Pawn Sacrifice is a pretty good movie (though not really a great one, for reasons we shall come to), but the problem it faces nowadays is that… well, look, it’s a story about an immensely talented American chess prodigy, growing up in the 1960s, struggling with their personal demons while attempting to make their mark in the Soviet-dominated sport. In other words, it’s the true-life version of The Queen’s Gambit (or perhaps we should just be clear as to how much the story of Bobby Fischer may have influenced Walter Tevis while writing the original novel of The Queen’s Gambit). Suffice to say the two works are very similar, but the Netflix show has the edge in most respects.

Why should this be? I think it is more than just a simple question of greater length (therefore depth) and budget (therefore scope). Pawn Sacrifice has well-mounted depictions of the period it is set and an effective script, plus the advantage of being able to incorporate real-life events so outrageous that no wholly fictional story would dare to include them – the 1972 world championship match may be remembered for including possibly the greatest single chess game in recorded history (the sixth of the series), but it will also go down in history for the circus surrounding it – Fischer insisting on playing in a tiny room with no audience or cameras, and Spassky demanding his chair be x-rayed to eliminate the possibility of sabotage being just two of the events involved. I know a bit about chess, but am not so well-versed in its history, so this was all fascinating to me.

The problem is really that – well, at various points Fischer is explicitly compared to Mozart and Leonardo, in terms of his sheer genius. How do you show Mozart’s genius to an audience? You play some of his music and let that speak for itself. How do you communicate the genius of Leonardo? You point the camera at La Gioconda or one of his other paintings and quietly step back for a while. The thing about chess is that while it may be one of the most remarkable products of human culture (a game with limited options, no random factors or hidden information, and yet there are still more possible games than there are grains of sand in the galaxy), it’s not exactly accessible in the same way as art or music. Two actors replaying one of Fischer’s greatest games is not that different from a couple of schlubs re-enacting one of my own quixotic deployments of the Grob opening, to the untrained eye at least. (And genuine chess masters have apparently complained that the chess on display in this movie is actually quite moronic, to the point where the board is not correctly oriented.)

Here Pawn Sacrifice comes unstuck just a tiny bit, as rather than showing what an extraordinary player Fischer is, the movie resorts to having other characters – principally Lombard, whom Sarsgaard underplays very nicely – telling each other how extraordinary he is. And that is, obviously, slightly suspect storytelling. I suppose it is also an issue that Fischer himself was, certainly towards the end of his life, a divisive, unsympathetic figure. The film addresses Fischer’s history of paranoia and his inclination towards anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (noting, en passant – yes, thanks, I’m here all week – that Fischer himself was of Russian Jewish stock), and Maguire is unafraid to come across as a deeply unpleasant and obnoxious individual.

The problem is therefore that, of the two sides of Fischer’s character, it’s the negative that comes across much more viscerally and affectingly in the film – communicating just what an extraordinary gift he had is too big a challenge for the script. The Queen’s Gambit, being fictional, is operating with a much looser leash, able to make Beth Harmon more sympathetic (and even here the show still struggles to really express the intricacies of chess).

Nevertheless, this is still a solid movie about some remarkable events, and if nothing else it reminds you of what a capable actor and engaging screen presence Tobey Maguire can be. Maybe we will see him again briefly before the end of the year. (Or maybe not, and we will have to wait until next Christmas for Babylon, which he is apparently in.)  Even if we don’t, this is still a good introduction to Fischer and the Reykjavik match of 1972.

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