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Pawn Sacrifice
Genre Biography
 
Review:

Pawn Sacrifice is a psychological biopic and character study about troubled chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer. Fischer took to chess from an early age, adopting the sport with a swagger and arrogance that would suggest he could go all the way. During the Cold War, it was the Russians, who dominated the chess world. Together with the on-going space race, the game's parallel with intellectual agility, gave the perception that the Russians had the edge on the Americans.

On its own, Fischer's story would still be remarkable... the rags-to-riches tale of a young American boy, whose chess skills could only be rivaled by grandmasters. While cantankerous and more difficult to please than a drunken rock star, he managed to become an icon and figurehead for the quiet and timeless game. His infamous attitude was spurred on by his mental instability, which made him even more squirrelly, the deeper he went into his craft.

However, it's difficult to rally alongside an arrogant, unstable and paranoid person, which probably explains why this biopic took so long to emerge. To give the character and story another dimension, Pawn Sacrifice has been aligned with subversive American-Russia battle of perceptions during The Cold War. Fischer was their secret weapon, sent to inflict maximum damage on the pride of a nation in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Director Edward Zwick, screenwriter Steven Knight and actor-producer Tobey Maguire have conspired to get away with a story about an arrogant brat, a sore loser and a brilliant, yet deranged mind. We've seen A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game and Ali, which all dealt with brilliant yet troubled individuals, who shaped and changed society and pop culture. Instead of slipping into the inspirational historical biopic mold, they've brought in a fresh political angle, which gives this fascinating biopic another layer.

Zwick has delivered a finely crafted film in Pawn Sacrifice, filled with old news reports, footage and detail from the age that make it a real rewind. We're immersed in the life-and-times with visual flair and enough colour to keep things upbeat. Steven Knight's script juggles an unlikable central character, who we can only really sympathise with, trying to keep a level of story integrity without derailing the film. He pads the troubled chess genius with enough likable supporting characters to help him cross the finish line as he competes against a series of honourable gentlemen by association.

Maguire is well-cast as Bobby Fischer, embracing equal doses of boyish charm and haunted affliction. He's the spiralling lone ranger, whose only redemption is found in championing national pride and sticking it to the communists. His squirrelly performance is counterbalanced by a Rodriguez-inspired take from Liev Schreiber, whose role as Fischer's nemesis, makes the film seem on the cusp of tipping into an Austin Powers meets Despicable Me style comedy about evil masterminds. Peter Sarsgaard's level-headed and understanding supporting role anchors the drama as a colleague and priest, alongside Michael Stuhlbarg's slow to chide and eager-to-please lawyer.

Pawn Sacrifice is entertaining, but fairly joyless and not quite as compelling as you'd hope. We're drained by Fischer's dysfunctional "spoilt brat" rants and depressed by the weight of the international scenario. The seriousness of the situation and mental condition sap any perceived levity and it becomes clinical and difficult to wade through, the echoes making you wonder how Christopher Nolan would've directed it.

It's not as distinctively different or compelling as its contemporaries and we're forced onto the back foot without a likable lead, making the film a process rather than an experience. It's solid thanks to the talent, quality of the ingredients and human interest factor, but makes for a challenging piece of entertainment.

The bottom line: Adept


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