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Family Movie Review: Pawn Sacrifice (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 114 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 14+. The biopic is about American chess legend Bobby Fischer and his descent into madness, so there are some unsettling scenes in which Fischer is clearly delusional; an implied sex scene concerning Bobby losing his virginity with a prostitute; and a good amount of cursing and language, including anti-Semitic language as Fischer becomes increasingly unhinged. The film is also set in the 1970s, so pretty much everyone is smoking and drinking, all the time.

Tobey Maguire brings American chess legend Bobby Fischer to life, from his committed play to his increasing paranoia and madness. The film’s explanation for Fischer’s downfall is a little too tidy, but the movie has power regardless.

By Roxana Hadadi

Tobey Maguire doesn’t seem to act much anymore, but men teetering between figuring out something great and falling into oblivion is pretty much his specialty at this point. He walked that fine line in “The Great Gatsby” as author Nick Carraway, so close to the meaning of love and life before being devastated by Gatsby’s death, and he does it again as American chess legend Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Fischer was a complicated, driven, almost impossible-to-understand figure, but Maguire gives him real pain, real dedication, real suffering.

The biopic follows Fischer from his childhood in a Jewish Communist family to his adulthood as a man spewing “Death to America” and various anti-Semitic rhetoric, a transformation so mindboggling that there have already been a few documentaries exploring why (like the excellent “Bobby Fischer Against the World”). The main focus, though, is on the 1972 World Chess Championship, which pitted Fischer against the Soviet Union’s best player, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, of “Lee Daniels’s The Butler”).

That chess match was a major moment in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, years before the Miracle on Ice, that similarly culturally impactful hockey match at the 1980 Olympics. American audiences were passionately following Fischer; Soviets rallied behind Boris; even political leaders got involved. But is that pressure what urged Fischer over the edge? Or was there something already inherent in him, some kind of mental instability that grew and grew?

Director Edward Zwick (of “Love and Other Drugs”) and screenwriter Steven Knight (of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”) try to have it both ways, presenting Fischer as grappling with delusions as early as childhood – but how could he not, when the U.S. government was tapping his family’s phone, tailing them because of their Communist affiliation? And years later, as an adult, how could Fischer’s single-minded obsession with chess not get warped into something exclusionary and dangerous when he crosses paths with a far-right Christian cult, Worldwide Church of God, that explains all of the world’s problems as a result of white Americans, Jews, and “secret” Jews? No matter that Bobby’s sister Joan (Lily Rabe) points out that they, themselves, are Jewish. That self-awareness doesn’t factor into Fischer’s madness at all.

It was a combination of things, from his paranoid childhood to the overwhelming expectations of a nation, that pushed Fischer over the edge, the film argues, and that is a nice and tidy explanation that works for this biopic’s purposes. It’s probably too clean of a rationale, but it could lead teenagers interested in this story to documentaries like “Bobby Fischer Against the World” and to more material about the Cold War.

And it’s not like “Pawn Sacrifice” isn’t well-done on its own, with Maguire’s magnetic performance and Schreiber’s contrasting steadiness. Facing each other over a chess board, they had the weight of the whole world upon them – and “Pawn Sacrifice” captures that stress and that complexity quite nicely.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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