Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) loves chess. It’s all he thinks about. None of his relationships with people are anywhere near as important to him as his commitment to the game.
Yet, like everyone, Fischer needs people. Two of them — lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and priest Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) — are willing to put up with his eccentricities in service of a patriotic goal: helping him to defeat Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) of the Soviet Union and become world chess champion.
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It’s 1972, the Cold War is still in effect, and the misanthropic Fischer has become a standard-bearer for American values. The 21-game match in Reykjavik, Iceland, is also a welcome distraction from the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
But Fischer is as unpredictable as his chess moves. And despite his grudge against the Russians for supposedly cheating him out of a previous victory, patriotism is not foremost on his mind.
Before long, his paranoia begins to take over the proceedings. It’s all Marshall and Lombardy can do to keep Fischer from going off the deep end and staying there.
It’s not necessary to be a chess enthusiast to get caught up in the drama of Pawn Sacrifice, a film that triumphs both as a character study and as a window into history. Working from a screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond) demonstrates admirable restraint, artfully telling a story that’s sufficiently interesting to engage moviegoers without undue, Hollywood-style melodramatics.
In one of his strongest and most impressive performances, Maguire goes all in on Fischer’s quirks and insecurities. Although Fischer is unquestionably a genius, he’s not an easy person to like, and Maguire brilliantly gets that point across.
As Spassky, Schreiber delivers a layered performance that masterfully transcends the cliché of the stoic, determined Russian.
Pawn Sacrifice is best appreciated as a movie about being obsessed — a character trait that’s certainly not limited to chess masters.
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe.
Director: Edward Zwick.
Screenwriter: Steven Knight.
A Bleecker Street Media release. Running time: 114 minutes. Brief strong language, sexual content, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.