‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is weighed down by biopic conventions

pawnsacrificelargePawn Sacrifice
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Edward Zwick
USA, 2014

Locke, the most recent film directed by Steven Knight, is a masterpiece of focus. With the help of his clutter-free screenplay and a stunning performance from Tom Hardy, Knight makes watching someone drive a car for ninety minutes as thrilling as the most opulent Hollywood set pieces. Although the camera’s perspective doesn’t change much throughout the film, and Hardy is the only person onscreen, the thrilling tale of a man whose life spirals out of control is never anything less than riveting. By necessity, the film is focused in a way few others are, and the concentration makes for a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

It’s a shame, then, that Knight can’t bring the same focus to his latest screenplay, Pawn Sacrifice (directed by Edward Zwick), a by-the-numbers biopic of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire). Like too many films of the genre, Pawn Sacrifice attempts to show its subject’s life from his early childhood on, even though the clear subject matter at hand concerns what happens to him much later in life. As a result (again, like too many films of the genre), Pawn Sacrifice struggles to make a cohesive dramatic arc out of the wide swath of time it attempts to encapsulate.

But before showing the young Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice begins with a striking cold open depicting the grown-up chess player under surveillance by Soviet cameras. Through a series of jump cuts, close-ups, and appearances of multiple lenses, Zwick depicts both Fischer’s paranoia and an important (but far from the only) cause of it. The use of multiple lenses and effects, showing Fisher through what’s supposed to look like photographic and documentary footage, are a recurring motif throughout the film, and Zwick establishes their presence immediately.

Then it’s onto the young Fischer (Aiden Lovekamp), who challenges and loses to a much older virtuoso. Although he’s impressed by Fischer’s prodigious talent, the boy is unsatisfied without a win, and he immediately challenges the man to a rematch. Beyond having nothing to do with the main narrative, the scene reveals nothing particularly notable: Fischer is competitive, and his desire to win is embedded deeply within him.  That this sort of thing is implied with a chess prodigy doesn’t keep Knight from feeling a need to spotlight the point. As a result, it keeps the film from getting off the ground earlier than it should, and detracts with its redundancy.

Regardless, the older Bobby is facing off against the Russians soon enough, although not without the help of his coach, priest Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), and manager Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). Although the larger goal is defeat of whomever the Russians can throw out, his overarching nemesis quickly becomes their star Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), leading to a natural conclusion in which the two face-off in a nail-biting (or so Zwick aims for) finale.

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Yet there’s plenty of territory to go through before then, which leads to Pawn Sacrifice ultimately feeling like it’s trying to tackle too much. The pseudo-documentary footage returns throughout the film, although its presence fails to build to much of a point. Knight suggests a use for the effect with Marshall’s discussion of shaping Fischer’s image, as well as to both mirror and explain Bobby’s paranoia, but Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t develop either of these ideas enough to feel particularly convincing. Even more distracting are the heavy-handed signifiers of historical chronology, throwing in non-diegetic Jefferson Airplane and talk of Watergate to indicate time periods when a mere title card would suffice.

Worse, what this all leads to isn’t particularly compelling, either. Watching two people play chess ultimately isn’t all that exciting, and Pawn Sacrifice struggles to reconcile this problem with the fact that a chess match serves as its climax. Zwick does what he can by deftly cutting between matches, and Knight does his part by emphasizing Fischer’s personal breakdown, but the cuts and contrived emotions end up robbing the scenes of whatever tension they could have.

In spite of these flaws, Maguire gives a strong lead performance, giving the film a pathos it otherwise sorely flacks. Even as Fischer descends into conspiracy theory delusions and overwhelming narcissism, Maguire maintains the character’s wide-eyed innocence and reminds viewers of the burden of his monomania. In Maguire’s hands, Fischer remains difficult to wholly dislike, in spite of his self-hating anti-semitism and apparent greed.

But instead of spotlighting these character elements, Knight’s screenplay goes all over the place, ultimately not revealing much about Fischer in attempting to show a broad portrait of him. By the time the climactic showdown ensues, the viewer is left not understanding Fischer much at all, making it hard to have a stake in the final match. In refusing to sacrifice the excesses of the biopic conventions it so rigorously adheres to, Pawn Sacrifice ends up working itself into checkmate.

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