Unfortunate for documentary veteran Liz Garbus and her newest entry, Bobby Fischer Against the World, the film When We Were Kings already exists. Otherwise, we might be better convinced by this particular vision of a vibrant and controversial talent pitted against a commanding opponent on previously unconsidered soil, the weight of an entire socio-political movement heavily and uncomfortably on his shoulders, the words of notorious figures guiding the viewer through one of the monumental events of not only sport, but America’s role on the international stage.
So strong is the echo here of Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 fight in Zaire that the specter of “The Greatest” can’t help but invade this portrait of chess’s best-ever; Ali is referenced twice, Ali-Frasier once, as well as the evocative and useful image of old boxers past their primes bashing each other senseless. Where When We Were Kings steadily and effectively built up to the great “Rumble in the Jungle,” Bobby Fischer Against the World only begins with the “Match of the Century,” the World Chess Championship pitting the prodigious American Fischer against Russian Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. Between heavy-handed and largely unnecessary title graphics, occasionally with a punning chess term as the headline of the forthcoming chapter, Garbus offers a breathless analysis of the Cold War implications of such a bout. Witnesses, among them Fischer’s close confidants, Icelandic officials, and Henry Kissinger and Dick Cavett, give talking-head testimony to the stress of the situation and beauty of the chess, including a convincing analysis of game six of the 24-game match as perhaps the most elegant game of chess ever played, a “symphony of placid beauty,” as one chess master describes it. This is strong and effective documentary filmmaking, but it’s only a lengthy prologue to the story on which Garbus clearly wants to focus. Note the noticeable uptick in the cleverness of the on-screen graphics or fitfully remember the movie poster’s tagline, “His Greatest Match Was in His Mind,” and you’ll belatedly come around to the jarring downshift into Fischer’s latter-day paranoia and anti-Semitism.
Structurally, Bobby Fischer Against the World is a mixed bag. Take the cinematography. The talking-head footage is all done in gorgeous widescreen high-definition, most of the interviewees sitting in front of a very deep background: long hallways, huge architectural edifices, doorways framing windows framing the sky. Is the viewer meant to explore these appealing, oddly incongruous spaces, at the expense of what is being said? It’s a provocative invitation since these lush, highly composed shots are paired throughout the film with grainy ’70s newsreels. The stark contrast in the quality of the imagery is a suitable analogue for the problem of the movie: Which work is it? The elegantly composed and considered analysis of mental illness as it overcame one of history’s finest analytical minds or the competition-centric romp through a historical watershed? The former storyline could have doubtless incorporated the latter with far less of a suggestion that the Spassky match was the film’s core focus; a fundamental misstep was then having submerged Fischer’s childhood and earliest successes far below the first discussions of the political atmosphere in 1972.
Either way, the true challenge of the film is, unsurprisingly, Fischer himself. He’s never, at any point in his story, a likeable figure. Still, at his peak at the chessboard, the majesty and incomprehensible genius of his play partially—only partially—validates his antics. As a filmgoer, to rise to the high of his defeat of Spassky only to find yourself, for a long time, waist-deep in the shame and sadness of all that followed requires a slightly more caring hand than the one Garbus provides. A few strong shots of courage wouldn’t have hurt either.