MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ Is Tobey Maguire’s Best Work


Film: Pawn Sacrifice
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber
Directed by: Edward Zwick

The world didn’t need another version of the Bobby Fischer story, but Pawn Sacrifice is far too compelling to deny.

Tobey Maguire has been something of an indie darling his entire life. Sure, he was also the first Spider-Man to appear on the big screen, but as soon as the universally panned Spider-Man 3 came out the doors to many big budget movies seemed to close in Maguire’s face. Still, thanks to a number of critically-acclaimed turns in small films, Maguire has remained a fixture of Hollywood. It was only a matter of time until he got another shot at real stardom, and it seems that opportunity has finally come in the form of Edward Zwick’s latest film.

Pawn Sacrifice revolves around Bobby Fischer’s string of 1972 World Chess Championship matches against Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), as well as Fischer’s own struggles with paranoia. To do this, the film begins in the middle of the competition before jumping back to Fischer’s youth. There, audiences watch a young Bobby teach himself chess, then proceed to make fools out of professional players 2-4 times his age. With success comes an ego, and that ego eventually makes Bobby someone very few people want to be around. Those who do usually want something from him, which in turn fuels the growing paranoia Bobby feels toward the world around him. No matter what anyone says, he believes that someone, or some group, is out to get him.

Maguire’s turn as Fischer is a career best, showcasing the vast range of the actor’s talent as Fischer sways from calm to crazy and back again. He’s supported by equally powerful turns from Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg, who play the roles of Bobby’s closest companions. Sarsgaard is a priest who once beat Fischer long ago, and Stuhlbarg has the thankless task of being Paul Marshall, otherwise known as the manager who pushed Bobby to the limit (and beyond it, depending on who you ask). Together, Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg must find a way to keep Bobby’s mental state under control while also making sure to not let the young chess master’s ego get the best of him. Bobby knows he is capable of greatness, and as a result he is constantly in a restless pursuit of something that will make him feel more accomplished. What he doesn’t realize, and what ultimately proves to be his undoing, is the fact no victory can quench that desire.

Where Zwick’s story soars is not as much in the narrative as it is in the way the film captures Bobby’s increasingly unstable mind. There are whispers of concern from an early age, but as Bobby continues to succeed there are more and more reasons for everyone to allow him to remain far from any form of proper supervision. Bobby longs to be recognized for the greatness he feels he possesses for so long that he begins to believe the only reason things don’t work out is due to an aggressive, yet unseen third party. Sometimes this means blaming the Russians, his biggest opponents, but other times it’s the Jews, or simply the government. Bobby is never able to trust many people, and as he matures his ability to relate at all with the world around him becomes increasingly impaired. He’s his own worst enemy, and Zwick carefully captures everything in an intimate, not to mention incredibly unnerving way.

The one place Pawn Sacrifice falls short is in its depiction of Boris Spassky, as well as the entire Russian chess team. Fischer and his team are constantly discussing their opponents’ strength and weaknesses, but we as an audience are given very little insight into their world. What we do see is Spassky being pushed to the limit in a manner not so different from Fischer, but because the film chooses to spend so little time with the Russians his emotions never land with the impact you feel they could if given a bit more time to exist on screen.

Nevertheless, Pawn Sacrifice is an exquisite foray into the unquestionably broken mind of Bobby Fischer. You may have heard his story before, and you may have seen other films address his struggles with sanity, but never has a film offered a more complete depiction of the man who took the world by storm as what we find in Edward Zwick’s latest work. It’s both heartbreaking and full of suspense, with insight into Fischer’s time away from the cameras that I don’t believe we have ever seen on the big screen until now. Pawn Sacrifice is certainly not the best film of 2015, but it’s one I recommend every true fan of cinema seek out when time allows.


James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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