For much of its runtime, watching "Pawn Sacrifice" is a grueling experience. Young Bobby Fischer is growing up fearing being spied on by government agents. His mother, Regina, (Robin Weigart) is a communist living in Cold War era Brooklyn. Bobby escapes from what looks like a loveless childhood and a chaotic home life by focusing on chess.
Regina takes Bobby to Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pia) a teacher who greets Bobby by telling him that chess is a religion that takes anyone regardless of nation or creed. One hopes that this kindly man will serve as a ray of light in Bobby's life, but Bobby behaves as if he is autistic. He makes little eye contact and focuses only on the board, shutting out his opponent and his mother and sister who must stand and watch as he spends hours on his first chess match with a near master. Once young Bobby loses to Nigro, he refuses to shake hands, cries silently, and icily demands another game.
The real Bobby Fischer was noticeably tall and slim with very striking facial features: piercing eyes, prominent nose, large, curved lips and a sprinkling of facial moles. Tobey Maguire is short and slight, with refined features, darker hair and no moles. Fischer was from Brooklyn and he lacked a formal education. He dropped out of high school. He talked like an uneducated Brooklynite who happens to be a headline-making genius; he had a lot of attitude. Maguire is from California and he never really captures Fischer's unique voice or inflection.
The film picks up with the arrival of three characters played by brilliant actors: Michael Stahlbarg as Paul Marshall, a sort of fixer / hand-holder, Peter Sarsgaard as Father William Lombardy, a chess master, and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. These three actors are superb, and each has a moment on screen that absolutely took my breath away.
Marshall is a long suffering lawyer who prods Fischer to go to Iceland to take on Boris Spassky and become the new world champion. Lombardy is the closest thing Fischer has to a friend. He serves as Fischer's second.
Bobby tears apart hotel rooms seeking hidden microphones; perhaps the Russians, the CIA, or the conspiratorial Jews are spying on him. Bobby runs from journalists' cameras and the fans who want to grab and kiss him. Bobby cracks when he hears spectators cough or when he can smell their breath. He demands more money, special chairs, different rooms, quieter cameras. Though Jewish, he listens to tapes that convince him that Jews are evil people taking over the world.
All this is really hard to watch. It's especially hard to watch for anyone who remembers the Fischer-Spassky match. Bobby Fischer was an incredibly gifted man. He was world famous. After his match, he could have made millions and enjoyed a cushioned retirement. Instead he trusted the wrong people, became a raving lunatic Jewish anti-Semite and a member of a cult he would later denounce, denounced America, cheered 9-11, spat on documents, broke laws, became an exile, and, after refusing necessary medical treatment, died entirely too young and unnecessarily. His ironic, poignant last words, they say, were, "Nothing is as healing as human touch."
You can't watch this movie and not wish that somebody had done something to help this man. You can't not wonder, what was wrong with him? Was it the bad relationship with his mother? His lack of a father? His illegitimacy? Was he schizophrenic or autistic? Or is that he was treated like a star and did not receive, from others, the kind of feedback that forms character? A combination of all of these factors? Because Bobby Fischer is a commodity, even in death, we will never know.
In the film, Paul Marshall, the more practical and earthbound of Bobby's advisors, suggests taking him to a psychiatrist. Father Lombardy responds that chess is a rabbit hole. He mentions the hundreds of millions of moves that chess masters must take into consideration. He says that taking Bobby to a psychiatrist would be like pouring concrete down a holy well. The implication is that Bobby's chess genius is inextricably tied to his mental illness.
Lombardy cites Paul Morphy, a chess genius who could not succeed at conventional life. But look at Boris Spassky. He is still alive and no one suggests that he is mentally ill. Maybe a mentally healthy Bobby would have been an even better chess player.
Liev Schreiber, in the commentary, says that chess masters must constantly predict their opponent's attacks, and that doing so contributes to paranoia. Perhaps so.
Although I found the film hard to watch, the performances by the leads were so profoundly rewarding that they lifted me up in awe and made me cry. I don't know how Liev Schreiber did it, but he perfectly channeled a Soviet man from the 70s. I know because I was there in the 70s. Michael Stahlberg utterly inhabits his part, a chain smoking, sweaty palmed, tireless enabler who takes every abuse from Bobby and never stops trying to push him forward. Peter Sarsgaard is just simply superb, in every scene, from praying the rosary on his knees to the moment when dawn breaks on his face as Bobby starts winning. Tobey Maguire has a moment that is so powerful it gave me chills. He is beating Spassky. He is in his element. It is his bliss. See the movie for that moment, one I watched over and over again.