Pawn Sacrifice is a really good movie.
As a chess fan I could write a quibbling review on historical inaccuracies, but that’s not a fair way to judge a drama “based on a true story”. The good news is that many of the really dramatic things that actually happened in the lead-up to and during the 1972 world championship made it into the film and played a significant role in moving the plot forward. In particular, I applaud the film makers for depicting 29… Bxh2? (* see note) from game one and 11…Nh5!? from game three. They pulled these off without any substantial technical explanation as to why these moves caused a such stir. But, no such explanation was required, the reactions these particular moves created in observers was powerful enough.
I had only one near “what the hell” moment near the end. There was pre-round 6 hyperbole that such a round could pretty much decide the whole thing. You don’t have to be a chess player to understand that a score of 4 1/2 vs 3 1/2 after six rounds in an up to 24 round match isn’t insurmountable. At least this kind of hype was said by media talking heads and not by the player characters and/or their entourages.
But, after seeing it through, making round 6 the climax of the film was actually good story telling. To have dragged us through most of the subsequent rounds in some kind of silly fast-forward montage would have killed the dramatic tension every good climax requires. Towards this end, there is actually one historical cheat that I want to single out and praise. I won’t spoil this with specifics but an incredible turn of events that actually happened in a much later round was placed into round 5 and had the audience laughing out loud as it helped us chug forward to the dramatic ending.
Every good drama delivers an emotional roller coaster, and Pawn Sacrifice pulls it off even if you know the plot outcome. At the moment of triumph, I actually had to take a deep breath to avoid bursting into joy-tears. Only a few other film titles have done that, and the only one I’ll admit to here in public is one of my other geek favorites, Apollo 13.
I’m not sure how much credit the middle of the film deserves for building us to such a dramatic ending. Something about them middle felt a little slow. Were there too many scenes consisting of searches for listening bugs or freak outs over a door being knocked? It’s okay to have a thematic device that is repeated, but perhaps a few less repetitions were required. (or perhaps I shouldn’t have watched the trailer so many times!)
Remarkably these kinds of scenes were pulled off empathetically and we’re able to avoid the outcome of having pity for our protagonist freak show at a safe distance. I think as much credit is due to the cinematography and sound design as the acting for pulling this off.
Early parts of the film covering Fischer’s youth could have been a little longer and less rushed if some of the things repeated in the middle took up less of the runtime. We are simply told by the Paul Marshall character that he’s a “poor kid from Brooklyn”. We could have been shown a little bit more of this deprivation and how in such an environment a kid could become obsessed with chess. The first scene of him as a bored and neglected child at a party of his mother’s communist friends was a good try in this direction, but ultimately a party, even one lacking opulence doesn’t scream “poverty!”. But, all credit due, this opening was a major success in establishing an origin story for his paranoia.
Another mind blowing Fischer youth fact that I hoped the audience absorbed was his mother moving out and leaving the apartment to him to live in on his own in his late teens. We are told this by another character, an empty (or emptying) apartment isn’t actually shown. I felt there was some risk that this significant life event didn’t sink in with being told vs shown.
Pardon the chess analogy, but these imperfections of the opening and mid-game are were not fatal. Overall they were quite well played. And I must end with additional emphasis that the end-game was sharp and decisive. Two thumbs up.
(* I won’t be crying in my cola tonight that the film truncated history by having Fischer resign game one immediately after 30 g3. See Yasser Seirawan’s recent lecture for some in-depth on the reality that Fischer played on through the adjournment and even still had drawing chances for awhile after this fateful and famous move.)