Movie Review: ‘PAWN SACRIFICE’ – An Origin Story That Doesn’t Know Its Own Endgame


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

PAWN SACRIFICE |  114 min  | PG-13
Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: Steven Knight (screenplay)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg and Lily Rabe

In 1972, the World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky captured a nation. Not only was it a match between two of the greatest players of all time, it was a battle for world supremacy – the US against Russia at the height of the cold war. However, director Ed Zwick’s PAWN SACRIFICE, a rote origin story about the rise and decline of Bobby Fischer’s chess playing mastery, will not capture this nation in the same fashion. The mark of any good sports flick is its ability to transcend the subject at hand to make a universally resonant and thrilling tale. After seeing how exciting a film about chess could be earlier this year, with French writer-director Elodie Namer’s THE TOURNAMENT (LE TOURNOI), it’s an utter letdown to see how an American film treats the game. Sacrificing electricity and artistry, the portrait it paints is by-the-numbers rather than an original masterpiece.

Bobby Fischer’s (played by Aiden Lovecamp and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick in younger years, Tobey Maguire in “older” ones) life is a fascinating one; he was a chess prodigy and an obnoxious, coddled prima donna who made his mom move out of their apartment so he could concentrate on his game. Only later does he realize nothing could silence the growing demons taking up residence in his head. It’s not long before an agent of the United States Government, lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg,), recruits Fischer to help take down the U.S.S.R – embodied by Russian chess champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber, whose black sunglasses and tailored suits do 95% of the acting). As he battles for supremacy, Fischer devolves into paranoia and becomes a pawn in his own game – the game of life. And if that sounds trite, it’s because it is!

Leiv Schreiber and Tobey Maguire in PAWN SACRIFICE. Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Films.

Leiv Schreiber and Tobey Maguire in PAWN SACRIFICE. Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Films.

Zwick, along with screenwriter Steven Knight, constantly back themselves into a zugzwang (a losing position) – something superior auteurs would have never let happen. Considering this is coming from the director of LEGENDS OF THE FALL and THE LAST SAMURAI and from the writer of LOCKE and EASTERN PROMISES (a.k.a. people who are capable of greatness), it’s astounding. Zwick tries to breathe life into it by mixing up mediums, utilizing grainy 16mm footage and cutting to black and white occasionally, but it’s all just artifice that adds virtually nothing to the picture. Save two deliberately lit and staged melodramatic scenes between Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Fischer’s former opponent/ priest Bill Lombardy, the performances are almost not worth writing home about. Maguire doesn’t quite nail the nuances, nor does the material allow him to ever make the audience care about his character’s struggles.

Characters are almost consistently having to tell the audience what’s happening rather than show action in a dynamic fashion. Bystanders are left to question Bobby’s chess moves twice – two times too many in my book. Even when it’s explained, it still doesn’t translate to the audience as most of us are not chess players, so we don’t know nor do we really care. Plus, there are a few loose ends the script doesn’t tie up. Who was spying on the Fischers? Was it the government or was young Bobby suffering from early onset paranoia? Who was compiling the file we saw on Bobby? While this information isn’t integral, it is a head-scratcher why the filmmakers bothered to waste screen time on it.

As the clock ticks away, it becomes more and more obvious that we’re not just stuck in a trebuchet – it’s more like everyone loses. Your precious time will be the only thing that’s sacrificed.

PAWN SACRIFICE is now playing in select cities.
Dallas: Angelika Dallas, Cinemark West Plano

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.