In both of Tobey Maguire's finest film appearances, he's played "wonder boys." First he was the preternaturally gifted writer James Leer in Curtis Hanson's wonderful 2000 picture of that name, and now he's the mercurial chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in the riveting new work from Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall). You know a movie's something special when it succeeds at generating tension and excitement from a game in which two people do little more than stare at a board and move pieces of wood. And does it ever.
The script by Steven Knight traces the tragic arc of Fischer's life from his early years, when he was raised by a Marxist mother (Robin Weigert) fond of hosting Communist gatherings in her home. By the age of 14, he was widely recognized as a genius. By 16, he had emancipated himself from his mother and found a mentor in a chess grandmaster and priest named Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard). Fischer's existence from this point was devoted to one goal: ending the Russians' long dominance of the sport.
Since the Cold War was still a thing, powerful behind-the-scenes types viewed the chess prodigy as a weapon to be deployed against the enemy. In the film, Paul Marshall, a shadowy lawyer with ties to the U.S. government and the Rolling Stones, approaches Fischer one day with a mysterious offer of sponsorship. He's played by Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the great shape shifters of contemporary cinema. "We lost China, we're losing Vietnam. We have to win this one," Marshall tells Fischer. The latter is more than happy to have financial backing, whatever its source, for his personal war against the Soviet empire — particularly world champion Boris Spassky.
Now, I've never been terribly impressed by the work of Liev Schreiber, but here he practically steals the show from Maguire with only a handful of scenes — while speaking Russian. It's a mesmerizing bit of acting. As is well known, Fischer's behavior was erratic; nearly paralyzed by paranoia, he made crazy, unreasonable demands at his matches. What's less well known, and what the film reveals, is that Spassky had issues of his own. One of the movie's many strange-but-true scenes shows him examining X-rays that he insisted be taken of his match chair. He believed radiation was being transmitted through it to disrupt his concentration.
Sort of equal parts A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, the picture culminates with a re-creation of 1972's legendary World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Fischer and Spassky faced off in a 21-match marathon that the press dubbed "World War III on a chessboard." To call the final act suspenseful would be an understatement. It's as edge-of-your-seat as any sports film ever made, and features the added attraction of real-life mad geniuses.
One needn't know a Sicilian Defense from the Najdorf Variation on it to follow the action, thanks to a clever device the filmmakers concocted. From a private viewing area, Fischer's handlers follow his every move. Marshall says something like "Is that good?" and Lombardy explains each move's significance. I know I was grateful for the play by play.
Maguire lends impressive depth to his portrayal. Obnoxiousness and megalomania are, of course, easier to depict on screen than the inner workings of a mind unraveling. Toward the end of Pawn Sacrifice, there's a moment when the actor seems perhaps to have gone slightly over the top. Then Zwick leaves us with an epilogue: footage of the real Fischer taken late in his life. Those few seconds make Maguire's work appear restrained by comparison. Sad story. Triumphant telling.