The tortured, abrasive genius has gotten a lot of play recently – the 2014 Toronto Film Festival alone saw the premiere of “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” all of which played with these tropes to some degree. The final of the three is the last to see release because it is the most conventional of the bunch and thus the most boring.
Picture “A Beautiful Mind” sans any beauty and you’ll arrive at Edward Zwick’s biopic on Bobby Fischer. So, in other words, just “A Mind.” Tobey Maguire stars as Fischer, a chess whiz who also happens to harbor serious mental health issues that convince him the Jewish people are conspiring to bring him down. (Never mind that Fischer himself was Jewish.)
After some obligatory introductory scenes that set up Fischer as a prodigy from his youth, the majority of the film concerns his 1972 match against Soviet heavyweight Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber). Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight want you to believe that this is the thinking man’s version of the 1980 Miracle on Ice – “World War III on a chessboard,” as one observer calls it. Yet for something supposedly so important, “Pawn Sacrifice” feels like it has remarkably low stakes and tension.
Part of that comes from investing so much energy in Fischer’s supposed mental deterioration, which Maguire plays like a histrionic marionette. We can see the strings, so nothing can really surprise us about the turns Fischer takes. Any more exposition would have made the film intolerable, but it might have been necessary to contextualize his genius. Without that, the whole film feels played at the intensity of an emotional meltdown in “Spider-Man.”
But a lot of the film’s dullness is due to Zwick’s direction, which is so tasteful that it forgets to entertain or engage. It’s hard to believe “Pawn Sacrifice” comes from the same man who directed great historical films like 1989’s “Glory” and 2006’s “Blood Diamond.” This film just feels remarkably drained of any intensity, something it desperately needed in order to make a convincing case that the man and the event depicted are worthy of our time and attention. C /