Pawn Sacrifice views Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) as the perfect manifestation of the fear, delusions, and geopolitics of the Cold War. Though born to Jewish parents and actively supported by the American government in his professional efforts, he would become a notorious anti-Semite, blaming international Jewry, the KGB, and the F.B.I. for his failures. The film’s thesis, that Fischer’s sweeping paranoia was the product of the era’s fearmongering and the kind of absolute myopia necessitated by chess, is perhaps too elegant and simplistic to be fully convincing, but director Edward Zwick’s decision to present Fischer’s life as a political thriller remains perversely engrossing.
Zwick strikes the right balance between showing the world from Fischer’s increasingly warped perspective and undermining his outrageous claims by emphasizing his alienation from everyone around him. He’s shown as a child surrounded by his mother’s communist friends whispering in Russian while their house is monitored by the F.B.I.. Later, during “The Match of the Century” in Reykjavik that pitted Fischer against reigning World Champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber as the rational foil), Richard Nixon calls Fischer to voice his concern. The championship coincided almost exactly with Watergate, and Fischer’s fear of government intervention in the match becomes a metaphor for the widespread political entropy that swept through America at the time. The chess virtuoso’s suspicion of tapped phones is implicitly linked with his associations with McCarthyism, J. Edgar Hoover, and Tricky Dick, and as such the film makes Fischer’s behavior understandable, if not justifiable.
Though Maguire’s Fischer is a kind of anti-Rocky Balboa in nature, he shares Rocky’s diminutive physical stature when compared to Schreiber’s stoic and statuesque Spassky, who suggests here the Ivan Drago of chess. Though Fischer was quite tall and physically imposing in real life, Maguire always seems smaller than those around him, which noticeably contrasts with Schreiber’s Spassky emerging from the ocean like a Russian Adonis and moving through the film with a sophisticated contempt for those around him. Spassky is Fischer’s obscure object of desire, the target of his obsessive longing and confused passion, and the camera stands in for Fischer’s gaze as it caresses his body and lingers on his impassive face. The libidinal aspect of Fischer’s obsession with Spassky is underlined by Fischer’s utterly bland encounter with a young prostitute who takes his virginity, but is unable to hold his interest, which immediately reverts to his elusive Russian opponent.
Their opposing depictions are meant to emphasize the rivalry between Fischer and Spassky as part of an intellectual arms race between America and the Soviet Union. Instead, it exudes the jingoistic vibe that characterized so much of the Cold War. Russians are otherized throughout, either as an intentional replication of contemporary American attitudes, Fischer’s own distorted perspective, or just the sort of cliché you expect to find in Cold War-set thrillers. This and Zwick’s decision to turn Pawn Sacrifice into a conventional sports drama in the middle stretch, lush with slow-motion shots of chess pieces being moved and crowds erupting in jubilation, blunts the film’s emotional power, distracting from its political and psychological insights.
Ultimately, the film is best appreciated as a tragicomedy, a profile of a man whose extraordinary talent was undermined by his absurd beliefs and the farcical political reality in which he was enmeshed. The latter is underscored by Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Fischer’s manager, an anxious F.B.I. affiliate who caters to all of Fischer’s worst impulses and demands his aid in helping America defeat communism. Pawn Sacrifice is no smear job, but a fairly nuanced portrait of the tension between chaos and genius in Fischer’s mind that fostered creation and destruction in equal measure. Like a pawn moving in slow motion with violent precision through a world of growing chaos, the film captures the inseparability of Fischer’s talent and madness in what he termed his search for truth through chess.