Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Pawn Sacrifice (5 Stars)

Between 1993 and 2011 four films were made about Robert James Fischer, better known as Bobby Fischer. Two were documentaries, two were biographical films. Does that mean that everything was said that had to be said? In September 2015 I found an article about a new film being made, "Pawn Sacrifice". After my initial groaning when I saw the headline I read the article and I was curious. Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber? That's a dream team. The author called the film brilliant and claimed that it was the best film about Bobby Fischer so far. I had to see it when it was released in England in December 2015.

No luck. My local cinema, Cineworld in Birmingham, chose not to show it. In fact, no cinemas in Birmingham showed it. If I wanted to see it I would have to travel to London. I decided to wait for the Blu-ray release. Also no luck. It was released on Blu-ray in America, but not in England, and Amazon stated the release was locked to Region A. (This has since been changed to list it as Region Free).

So I waited. And waited. And waited. This month it was added to Amazon Prime in Germany, so I could finally watch it.

The film begins with Bobby Fischer as a child and ends with his victory as world chess champion in 1972. It might have been interesting to add an extra hour to continue until his death in 2008, but this would have caused problems for the film's pacing. Maybe one day someone will make a film about the latter years, 1972 to 2008.

I've always appreciated Tobey Maguire as an actor, ever since I first saw him in "Pleasantville", but this is the most astounding performance of his career. For me this will be his signature role, the role I'll always remember him for. He perfectly portrays the mood swings of a man who was seriously ill. Under normal circumstances he would have been locked up in a psychiatric ward, but the American government had other plans for him. It was the middle of the Cold War. The best chess players in the world were all Russians, proving that Russians are more intelligent than Americans and by extension that Communism is superior to democracy. Bobby Fischer, despite his paranoia, his mood swings and his narcissism, was the only American capable of beating the Russians. Bobby Fischer was America's weapon of mass destruction to be unleashed on Russia, and if weaponising him drove him further into madness, who cared? As Fischer's closest adviser, the Catholic priest Bill Lombardy, said, Fischer was in more danger if he won than if he lost.

Liev Schreiber's performance as the reigning champion, Boris Spassky, is just as remarkable. For the first half of the film he's a silent, enigmatic figure, striding around, always flanked by secret service agents and chess officials. In the second half of the film we finally get to know him. We see a warmth beneath his exterior that he's only hiding because it's expected of him. He knows that he's being weaponised by Russia, but all he wants to do is play chess and show the world that he's the best player.

The focus of the film is on Bobby Fischer's madness. He hated the Jews, and he saw Jewish conspiracies all around him. The irony is that he himself was a Jew, even though he denied it. The film hints that his problems stemmed from his relationship with his mother. She was a Polish Jewess, and the identity of his biological father was unknown. He despised her because of her frequent love affairs.

Bobby Fischer admired Adolf Hitler, not as a leader but as a Jew-killer. He was blind to the fact that he too would have been gassed in Germany. In his later years his hatred for the Jews took on ridiculous proportions. He gave a series of interviews for a Philippine radio station, which were available on his web site until his death. (After his death the recordings were discreetly removed by friends who wanted to preserve his memory). The interviews were characterised by anti-Semitic rants, however much the interviewer tried to talk about chess. In a memorable interview he talks for half an hour about his penis. He claimed that when he was at chess tournaments the Jewish players saw how big his penis was when they visited the rest room and were intimidated, because Jews all have small penises. This gave him a psychological edge when he played chess with them.

Was Bobby Fischer the best player who has ever lived? That's a tough question to answer. He was definitely the world's best player in 1972, but after the world championship he descended further into madness and disappeared from the public eye. In 1975 his world champion title was removed because he refused to defend the title, and it fell back into the hands of the Russians, who retained the title for the next 30 years (Anatoly Karpov, 1975-1985; Garry Kasparov, 1985-2000; Vladimir Kramnik, 2000-2007). Garry Kasparov, who greatly respected Fischer as a player, repeatedly offered to play him, but Fischer refused. He said that Kasparov was a poor player and was only allowed to be world champion because he was a Jew.

Bobby Fischer still has many fans today, and they say he's the best player who has ever lived. Undoubtedly, he played the most exciting chess games, especially in contrast to the playing styles of the championship matches of the 1960's and 1970's. Fischer was a tactical genius who frequently sacrificed pieces to gain an advantage.

I personally believe that the best player who has ever lived is either Gary Kasparov or the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen. Since the 1990's opening theory has become very important in chess, and Garry Kasparov is undoubtedly the greatest expert in chess openings who has ever lived. (Chess openings are a series of moves that are played automatically, almost without thinking, because they're known to be the best moves). Magnus Carlsen is probably superior to Kasparov in his chess tactics, but he doesn't quite equal Kasparov's knowledge of opening theory. Those are sweeping statements, and I'm scared of vicious replies from people who know more about chess than me.

Bobby Fischer
March 9, 1943 – January 17, 2008

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