Pawn Sacrifice is Out: What do the Reviewers Say?

Pawn Sacrifice is Out: What do the Reviewers Say?

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Two years ago it was announced, and now it's out: Pawn Sacrifice, a new film directed by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) and starring Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer telling the story of the legendary U.S. grandmaster and (his road to) the 1972 World Championship.

The story of Bobby Fischer is still as fascinating as ever. After Steven Zaillan’s 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer and Liz Garbus' 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (both well received), now finally a dramatized version of the 1972 match has appeared: Pawn Sacrifice (USA, 2013, Gail Katz Productions/Material Pictures, 114 minutes).

The independently produced biopic was shown for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. Directed by Edward Zwick, Pawn Sacrifice is about the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) but also deals with Fischer's the road to the match. Other key figures in the film are Fischer's second, the priest and grandmaster Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Fischer's chess-loving lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg).

According to the festival's website, the film “surveys Fischer's deteriorating mental state over the course of the summer of ’72, as his paranoia surges and his mania for maintaining focus becomes so acute that he demands all cameras be removed from the playing space because their noise is too distracting.”

Shortly before the film premiered, the Toronto Sun did red-carpet interviews with the main actors and the director. 

Maguire: “There were a lot of challenges, he’s a very complicated guy. I think Bobby Fischer was almost singularly focused on being world champion and being the best in the world and possibly the best in history at one game so I don’t know that’s a pretty intense place to go to. For him, it was both something that he excelled in, it was a place of safety and it was one of a pride, he wanted to be that person.”

Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer. | Photo: Material Pictures.

Director Edward Zwick, about the Cold War background: “Here were these two unlikely gladiators going out to represent their respective ideologies and I think we invested in the same way as some people try to politicize the Olympics. There was an opportunity to have some kind of combat that was safe.”


Pawn Sacrifice hasn't been officially released in cinemas yet, but the first reviews, based on festival screenings, have appeared. They're not overly positive. Here's an overview.

The Guardian gives two out of five stars: “We start off with a dozen news readers from different countries all telling us the same thing: maverick yank piece-pusher Fischer (Tobey Maguire) has gone awol during his climatic chess showdown in Reykjavik with arch-rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Why we need to hear this in 12 languages, other than to clock that it’s big news, I’m not certain, but it’s an opening indicative of Zwick’s approach: at once rushed and repetitive, coshing you on the head with the plot when what you want is the detail.”

TheHollywoodReporter is slightly more positive: “Taking us through the usual biopic ups and downs as Fischer makes his way from New York to the big leagues, the film doesn’t break any new ground in terms of style or structure, with Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) delivering a fairly standardized package, albeit one that’s both polished looking and compellingly performed, especially when the U.S. upstart plays the Russian champ for the first time in California.”

The Wrap's chat with Maguire & Zwick.

Indiewire agrees that it's a decent but not great film: “"Pawn Sacrifice" certainly whips up a dervish of energy, and as a piece of dramatic entertainment, it's mostly engaging, and features character actors doing very good work. And yet, the movie isn't a definitive checkmate, with the narrative ferocity unable, try as it might, to smooth over some of the bumps in the story and gaps in the plotting.”

Variety's judgement is similar: “Revisiting that astonishing moment when a world reeling from Vietnam and Watergate was held spellbound by an epic, emblematic 1972 chess match between Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, this straightforward but focused biopic doesn’t crack the mystery of the mentally troubled misanthrope who became the game’s greatest player, though Tobey Maguire’s angry, bristling lead performance does capture the man’s outsized personality in spades. An elegant if unrevealing title and the somewhat rarefied historical material may keep broad audience exposure at bay, but an enterprising distrib could court discerning grown-up interest.”

JoBlo gives 6/10: “But why then is PAWN SACRIFICE not the great film it should be? While it's still a relatively good film, both intelligently crafted and well-written, Zwick's old-fashioned style, where the story is told in such a straightforward docu-drama way, feels old hat. This is the kind of movie where every ten minutes or so there's a montage set to a popular pop song of the era. It's fine, but it's ho-hum.”

Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. | Photo: Material Pictures.

The Telegraph isn't enthusiastic either: “Maguire tries hard, and has a good stab at Fischer’s twitchy rage, but can’t bring much freshness or specificity to anything else. Basically, Zwick’s film sets the stage for a brilliant intellectual showdown, then hides away its content, as if worried he’s going to scare us off with too much chess. He castles and fritters away his pieces, angling for a dull draw.”

WeGotThisCovered especially likes the screenplay: “Thankfully, Knight’s screenplay does not shy away from the man’s glorious contradictions –- he had a mind both incredible and dangerous; he loved gloating to the public but was a nuisance and nut in private. The screenwriter makes one sympathetic and understanding to his social difficulty and paranoia, letting us into his dizzy headspace. Meanwhile, Pawn Sacrifice also hints at his future repugnance as a vagrant and anti-Semite, without making these aspects too distracting.”

In November, there will be another world championship match: Anand-Carlsen, Part 2, in Sochi, Russia.

Around that time Pawn Sacrifice might be out in cinemas. It remains to be seen whether the cast and crew will accept Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's offer “to have a premier [sic] of Pawn Sacrifice in Sochi during the match.”

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