Madness, politics, and chess may sound like an odd combination to pull off a compelling film, but Zwick (Last Samurai) manages to direct an engaging and intense story without spackling over the ugly parts of Bobby Fischer’s personality. He captures both the era and the game and the odd way it all got tangled up.
Tobey Maguire (Great Gatsby) recreates Fischer in all his glory and flaws. He exudes a sense of fierce intelligence and ability while also presenting us with a broken mind. You may not have been around during the rise of his popularity, but Fischer had a charisma that was born of arrogance and capability. He was a soldier of the mind carrying with him the hope of a nation that was locked in a battle that was using words and sports as their weapons. It may sound like science fiction, but that is the way it felt at the time.
Playing the soldier from the other side, Liev Schreiber (Spotlight) creates a pampered intellectual rock star from the USSR. He is subtle in his enjoyment and his frustration with the situation. Athletes in the Soviet Republic, even mental ones, had little freedom of their own in those days, but were provided many comforts. But if all you really cared about what the game you were good at, and not the politics, you could find yourself at odds with your situation. Schreiber takes Spassky on a great journey over the course of the movie. Though not his most compelling role in recent years, it works well with Maguire’s and with the story’s needs.
Guiding Fischer through his journey in this story are a few key people. Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass) as his, if not confidant, his trainer, actually has the most accessible role and, possibly the most complex. He pulls that off without distracting from the main story, but I would have liked to have seen more of him during the tale. As his handler, Michael Stuhlbarg (Steve Jobs) is a bit broadly played, but probably not unfairly so given the era and those involved.
The women in his story are more spectators than participants, but they were played well. Lily Rabe (The Whispers), Robin Weigert (Jessica Jones), and even Evelyn Brochu (Orphan Black) gave you a sense of the influences upon him and the connections he was able to maintain via effort or sympathy.
Biopics are challenging to pull off at best. Biopics about, frankly, unlikable people are even more difficult. Writer Knight (The Hundred-Foot Journey) opens up Fischer and, without excusing him, gives you a sense of sympathy and understanding. In these current years of anti-intellectualism, it may be hard to remember a time when a chess player was one of the most celebrated cultural figures in this country, and even the world, but it happened. And while the story is very much about Fischer himself, the turmoil and the shaping of history around him also gets exposed in the script. This is an intriguing and entertaining film definitely worth your time.