There was a time when one of the best-known sportsmen in the world didn’t wear a uniform, cleats or throw a ball. As unlikely as it seems in the summer of 1972 chess master Bobby Fischer held the world transfixed, battling against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.
Tobey McGuire is Fischer, a child chess prodigy determined to be recognized as the best player in the world. As a young, cocky player he easily decimates his opponents, earning national ranking and the opportunity to play the best players in the world.
At Fischer’s side are Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) as a shadowy government figure who sees Fischer’s triumph over the Russians as a Cold War triumph for all of America and a chess whiz priest (Peter Sarsgaard) who provides guidance, both personal and professional.
Between Fischer and his goal is Spassky (Liev Schreiber), a stately Russian genius who thoroughly unnerves the American, highlighting his descent into mental illness and paranoia. By the time to two face off at the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, Iceland, Fischer’s obsessions—anti-Semitism (even though he himself is Jewish) and a deep seeded distrust of his Russian opponents—threaten to incapacitate him.
Considering Fischer’s ability to think several steps ahead of his opponents, “Pawn Sacrifice” is surprisingly straightforward. Fischer’s life is divided into major events laid out end to end, from prodigy to world champion to eccentric recluse. McGuire transcends the basic biopic structure with a nuanced performance that breathes life into Fischer’s brilliance and demons. The reason for his torments aren’t examined as deeply as it might have been—his issues with identity seem to only stem from his mother’s taunts about his absent father—which may have deepened the character but McGuire plays him with confidence and vulnerability.
Also strong is Schreiber, performing here in Russian, as the august but human grandmaster.
“Pawn Sacrifice” kicks into gear in its final third as Fischer and Spassky go mano e mano over a chess board as the world watches.