It's absolutely fascinating to see how the American film industry approaches films that fall outside their current area of know-how. Pawn Sacrifice is not short of a proper Hollywood pedigree: starring Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire, and helmed by Edward Zwick, who directed Leonardo di Caprio in Blood Diamond and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, this independently-financed production premiered a year ago at Toronto to lukewarm reviews and basically has been bouncing around ever since, forlorn and underappreciated.
Up to a point, it might be understandable - it's the kind of middlebrow adult drama that studios really don't know how to sell these days outside awards season, especially if it's a middling film with no show-off performances. But, while no masterpiece, Pawn Sacrifice is hardly middling, and though there are no "look-at-me!" performances here (the assembled cast is much too smart for that), Mr. Maguire is pitch-perfect as American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, whose obsession with the game leads him down a rabbit hole with a strong chance of no return.
As scripted by British dramatist du jour Steven Knight, Fischer's story is one of a brilliant mind gone into overdrive; having channeled all his energy, willpower and worldview into the chessboard from a young age, everything else around him becomes secondary or even non-existant. His self-aggrandising statements, infuriating spoilt whims, outlandish paranoia and disregard for those around him arise from a stunted upbringing into a kind of idiot savant who only really truly comes to life, and becomes himself, in front of the board.
Unfortunately, Fischer's rise to the fame coincides with the hottest moments of the Cold War, and Messrs. Zwick and Knight make sure we understand how he becomes unwittingly involved in the political gamesmanship, through the sponsoring of Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). A lawyer with shady government connections, Marshall maneuvers backstage to make Fischer's wish to became world champion a proxy Cold War with the Russian masters, and especially the young player's stated nemesis Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Pawn Sacrifice asks whether Bobby Fischer's moment of triumph sent him over the edge, or whether he would get there on his own regardless; and Mr. Maguire makes sure we understand that he's not entirely aware of the ramifications of his actions outside his closed universe.
Mr. Zwick is no Martin Scorsese; though the film is elegantly, attentively shot by DP Bradford Young, who conjures effortlessly the correct period feel for the various time frames, he can't make the chessboard sing like Mr. Scorsese did with the pool tables in The Color of Money. What he can do is let his actors ride a well-constructed script, and his smart cast bites into it with relish - besides Mr. Maguire and Mr. Stuhlbarg, full honors to Peter Sarsgaard, one of the most generally undervalued contemporary American actors, in yet another fully present supporting performance as Fischer's chess coach. It's a comforting film - proof that American film can still turn out decent, intelligent dramas like they knew how to in the sixties and seventies, outranking most of the Oscar bait dramas that glut theaters in the run-up to Christmas. Doesn't look like Pawn Sacrifice will be in that particular race, but there's more, and better, quality cinema here than in most of the usual suspects.
US, 2014, 114 minutes
Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert
Directed by Edward Zwick; screenplay by Steven Knight, based on a story by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Mr. Knight; cinematographer Bradford Young (widescreen); composer James Newton Howard; production designer Isabelle Guay; costume designer Renée April; editor Steven Rosenblum; produced by Gail Katz, Mr. Maguire and Mr. Zwick, for MICA Entertainment, Material Pictures and Gail Katz Productions in association with Palmstar
Screened October 17th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening