Bobby Fischer Against the World: movie review

Director Liz Garbus’s achievement is in making Bobby Fischer's story palpable to an audience that may have been too young to witness Fischer capture American pop culture like some Michael Jackson with an endgame, or to those who’ve forgotten how his skills took hold of the nation’s thinking, even bumping Watergate updates from the evening news.

By , Meet in the Lobby

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    Bobby Fischer plays against César Muñoz of Ecuador in the 1960 World Chess Olympiad. Liz Garbus' documentary, 'Bobby Fischer Against the World,' tells the story of the chess grandmaster.
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Chess. You hear the word over and over in Liz Garbus’ thrilling documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World. It’s practically everywhere, in reference to everything, strewn throughout news footage, and repeated in talking-head interviews. It’s tough to recall another film with such a ubiquitous word, but that repetition makes sense here. That word, the game, the philosophy, practically ate Bobby Fischer’s brain whole. As Garbus deftly tells us, Fischer was not just obsessed with chess; he was possessed by it.

That slavish dedication to mastering, and even over-mastering, the game is at the core of Fischer’s actions, for perhaps his entire life. In the time leading up to Fischer’s infamous, politically charged match against Soviet Boris Spassky — the obvious centerpiece of the film — we see that he put all his quirks and neuroses on display for the world. He was boorish and selfish. Remarkably conceited and quizzically reclusive. He oozed weirdness, disrespect and an unmistakable level of genius.

Garbus’s achievement is in making this all palpable to an audience that may have been too young to witness Fischer capture American pop culture like some Michael Jackson with an endgame, or to those who’ve forgotten how his skills took hold of the nation’s thinking, even bumping Watergate updates from the evening news (and Garbus has the footage to prove it). Garbus spends the requisite time on Fischer’s childhood–a bizarre scenario that surely informs his adult presence — but she smartly devotes a chunk of time to the preparation for, and match with, Spassky.

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That pivotal storyline is told from the point-of-view of a friend, Anthony Saidy, who was smack in the middle of the chaos. Saidy, a fellow chess player, convinced Fischer to finally fly to the match location in Iceland, and recalls Fischer’s wholesale disregard for so many of the conventions expected for such a global event. (Film footage of Fischer showing the organizers which match cameras were breaking his concentration is a gem.)

Throughout Bobby Fischer Against the World, Garbus (Oscar nominee for The Farm: Angola, USA) offers a careful commentary on the parallels between the board and real life — and the dangers when they inexplicably merge. For all the theorizing that occurs in the world of chess, there appears to be equal analysis of Fischer himself by the people who knew him. They try to employ 20/20 hindsight to explain to Garbus’s camera just what made the master tick. The idea that chess is a naturally “paranoid” game — a player attempts to imagine every conceivable attack — and that a genius chess player could then suffer that same paranoia, is an insightful and painful possibility.

When Garbus begins to document the post-disappearance Fischer years, it becomes clear that her film will stand as one of the quintessential Bobby Fischer records, following Fischer’s madness to his death. It takes 90 minutes for Liz Garbus to take us from an awkward, confident teenage chess freak to a hateful, weakened man old beyond his years, maybe with games and moves still zipping around in his brain. And we know we’ve experienced a tragedy.

Bobby Fischer Against the World is part of the 2011 HBO Summer Docs Series, and can be seen on HBO On Demand through September 11, 2011, and on HBO Go.

Norm Schrager blogs at Meet in the Lobby.

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