Neither the cold war nor the game of chess are inherently cinematic. Put them together and what do you get? Yawn Sacrifice, that’s what.
Tobey Maguire plays Bobby Fischer, an American chess player so cocksure and full of demands you’d think he’d mistaken chess for rock n roll. Actually, it’s just his mental illness talking. As his handlers (Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg) try to reign in the crazy, he’s busy representing America The Great against the powerhouse (of chess) that is the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war (his biggest foe is played by Liev Schreiber). Winning is his patriotic duty.
Tobey Maguire gives a big, showy, emoty performance that I wasn’t totally convinced by. I think I’m just kind of over Tobey Maguire, to be honest. I much preferred Liev Schreiber for his restraint (an underrated talent, in my opinion), and Sarsgaard for his composure. To be fair though, it’s hard to really show Fischer’s particular brand of madness. Some insanity makes for great movie making, because the acting out is fun (think Silver Linings Playbook, or Girl, Interrupted). But a lot of mental illness is much more quiet, more sitting in a dark hotel room taking apart telephones while muttering to oneself. Realistic, sure, but not exactly entertaining.
But the biggest question you have to ask yourself is this: would you pay to go see a chess match? Did you know that chess is a spectator sport? I couldn’t have imagined it since I think chess is a real bore. I knew how to play, briefly, when forced to learn during library period in a Catholic elementary school that couldn’t afford actual books. I understand it’s about strategy, out-thinking your opponent, and analyzing the board for its near-infinite possibilities (you can imagine how this kind of constant processing could push anyone to the brink of madness). But I just don’t get how that’s fun. I don’t want to do it, and I don’t want to watch others do it, and bottom line: I don’t want to watch Tobey Maguire pretend to do it. Director Edward Zwick tries to play this like it’s a true sports film, and it’s just not. The drama’s not there. This film didn’t work for me.
Whether you’ll like it depends on whether you respond to watching someone’s sanity be sacrified for a board game, all in the name of patriotic duty. And – spoiler alert! – (okay, it’s not that spoilery since this is history) America wins the match AND the cold war (supposedly), but then casts poor Bobby aside, revoking his passport and citizenship, even. Because that’s the kind of stand-up country they are. They’ll use up the last of your sanity, and then leave you to die alone, a sickly recluse and fugitive – and then fight your relatives for your estate when you die. You’re a class act, America.