Pawn Sacrifice is a game of chess in which the player only chooses to use one piece to try to accomplish his goal. That’s a shame too, because the other pieces on the board are fascinating. The piece the movie uses—Tobey Maguire as chess phenom and paranoid recluse Bobby Fischer—is the queen, so the movie still manages to make the game/film interesting. The other pieces—Peter Saasgard as Fischer’s cleric/friend, Michael Stuhlberg as Fischer’s handler/sponsor, and Lily Rabe as Fischer’s sister—are kept locked behind the pawns, ineffective no matter how tantalizing their presence may be.
Okay. I’ll drop the metaphor and say it straight. Pawn Sacrifice zeroes in on Bobby Fisher’s paranoia early in the film and sticks with that aspect of his life throughout. Tobey Maguire is good, and his performance carries the movie, but the movie doesn’t explore the other characters at all, doing a disservice to the fine actors portraying them. Pawn Sacrifice is entertaining, but it offers no insight into the one of the most complex minds and personalities of the past century.
I kept wishing Rob Howard had directed this movie. In movies like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, and Rush, Howard has adapted historical events from the 1960s and 70s in a way that gives audiences a sense of the times and places, the many characters involved in the story, and the ways the times, places, and people influence each other. Pawn Sacrifice gives us paranoia and newsreel footage. Edward Zwick, Pawn Sacrifice’s director, has done better in Glory, The Siege, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, and Defiance. Perhaps chess just wasn’t violent enough for him.
The question undergirding the film concerning the correlation between genius and insanity isn’t a compelling one for me. Perhaps if Fischer’s insanity had been depicted as something other than paranoia, if the movie had paid more attention to his unorthodox chess play and less on his need for silence and fresh-squeezed orange juice, then I might have found something to hold onto here.
It’s true that what looks crazy is often quite clever. We become so devoted to our normal ways of doing things, we overlook other ways that may be better than what we know. We’re tied to tradition. Fischer, of course, knew the tradition of chess better than anyone, and that’s what enabled him to make his genius moves. That’s the tension the film should have explored, the one between tradition and innovation. The one needs the other. In church as in chess, only those most aware of what’s come before have the ability to do something new.
That’s why we keep going back to the creeds, back to the example of faith given us by the generations of Christians who have come before us. When we know all the moves that have been made before, all the moves possible in a given situation, then we can strike out and try something new, something perfect for our particular time and place. We love effectively in the instant only by knowing how we have loved before. “I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing,” Jesus said, “You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father” (John 14:12), or, as John wrote it much more elegantly at the end of his life, “We love because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19).