Pawn Sacrifice does little to excite

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Two adversaries, one a kid from the Bronx and the other a product of Soviet propaganda, glare violently into each other’s eyes. The sound of a ticking clock echoes as the two combatants carefully make their moves. One gracefully attacks as the other shuffles into defense. This is not an action sequence from a spy thriller, but a description of a table game stereotypically played by eccentrics: chess.

Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), regarded by many as the greatest chess player in history, rose in fame during the ’60s as the Cold War and Watergate were boiling over. After dominating the US championships the previous years, Fischer’s last challenge was to become World Champion and defeat his Soviet rival, Boris Spassky. It’s a classic tale of underdog and champion, good and evil, poor and rich, USA and USSR.

The stakes should arise from the socio-political climate and the subtle impacts of the physically lethargic game, but a couple of tense and stylized sequences aside, Pawn Sacrifice fails to overcome the fact that it’s primarily a humourless look at two weird guys strategizing in ways we’re unable to understand.

Like in a sports film, the chess isn’t as important as the relationships, characters, and politics that surround them. As a lot of games are played out through unremarkable montages, and the chess sequences are clearly influenced by Rocky and Chariots Of Fire. Edward Zwick’s film is best compared to sports films rather than standard biopics of historical figures.

If Pawn Sacrifice had to be described as a chess piece, it would be the queen — she moves every which way, and yet no one is really certain how she should be used. A strong lead performance from Tobey Maguire is in service of a film that sporadically shifts from one conflict to the next. Mental and mommy issues are mostly abandoned to be picked up in the climactic match as Zwick intercuts all the forgotten relationships with a climactic duel between Fischer and Spassky. There’s little development; only a forced resolution.

Visually it’s also all over the map: constant shifts from black and white, ’70s news footage, and glossy imagery – all with no thematic through-line. Pawn Sacrifice is a lawn dug up by groundhogs; there might be depth beneath the surface but all we see are the little mounds left on top. You won’t leave feeling like you lost, yet the film is never able to express the thrill of a checkmate. Pawn Sacrifice is a bland statement; a tie that is like kissing your sister. It’s hard to get anything out of it.