Pawn Sacrifice is an excellent biographical thriller, with top notch work from Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber. Though it sometimes stumbles in capturing the madness of its characters, the film feels authentic and exciting throughout the runtime, building to an epic climax that combines history and mental games to create an enigmatic and shocking thriller.
A young prodigy of chess, Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) struggles with a difficult family life, as his communist parents fall into the eye of the government. As his life falls apart, Fischer builds his skills from youth to competition when he faces the Russian team of players. After charging the Russian team with indecent and immoral behavior, Fischer makes a pact with the patriotic lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and former master player Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsguard) with the goal of winning the world championship and challenging the Russian champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).
Director Edward Zwick does an excellent job at setting up the tension between the characters, capturing the madness of Bobby Fischer without going overboard. Perhaps more impressive however is the fact that Zwick makes the game of chess interesting and engaging; capturing any game onscreen is a challenge, but the expert filmmaking and varied cinematography both makes it tangible for veteran chess player and even those who’ve never played.
The cold war setting is also a big bonus, and adds a lot to the tension of the film as well as providing an interesting context for the film’s story. Though the plots of the cold war, the greater game of chess, and the madness of the characters threaten to convolute the film’s tonal and plot consistency, Zwick blends them in a method that is concise and effective. While the focus on Fischer’s own psychological issues sometimes feel redundant, they resolve well and help to bring the film’s finale together.
The finale itself is the film’s masterwork, a near perfect ending to the film’s epic conflicts. The final conflict between Spassky and Fischer not only puts the characters on equal ground, but draws a comparison between the characters that sheds new light on the film’s events and gives an emotional draw to both characters despite their faults. The capturing of the characters and real life events is fantastic, as it both gives an authentic representation of a true phenomenon, while not sacrificing the dramatic heft of the film’s central drama.
The cast completely leads the film, and the performances very much fit within the film’s mix of realism and drama. Tobey Maguire gives an unrecognizable and uncharacteristically explosive performance as Fischer, and pushes the character’s arc without feeling over the top. Equally strong is Liev Schreiber as Spassky, who’s character is developed with subtlety, building to a great emotional finale in which he’s given a surprisingly relatable finale. Also strong is Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsguard, who’s smaller roles are given a lot to do and are well developed.
Pawn Sacrifice is an intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant film that excellently captures a game and an era. Not to be forgotten by award season, the film is an epic and thrilling capsule into a fascinating story. Grade: B+