'Pawn Sacrifice': The real story overwhelms its dramatization

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Pawn' stars Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber as chess players Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Maguire overdoes his performance, but Schreiber is more effective.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters
'Pawn Sacrifice' stars Tobey Maguire.

Bobby Fischer was the rock star of the chess world and his 1972 Reykjavik matchup against reigning champ Boris Spassky was an international event – the World Cup of brains. 

Anyone who followed that match as it played out (as I did) must surely suspect that no movie could it justice. “Pawn Sacrifice,” directed by Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight, uses the duel as its centerpiece and solidifies that suspicion. But there is, of course, an irresistible urge to see the dramatization of actual events, especially involving someone as nuttily charismatic as Fischer.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, and, though he tries hard, he can’t get really get inside Fischer’s cerebellum. Also, Maguire is essentially an indrawn actor, and in this film, he is required to be showily extroverted – lots of yelling and hand-waving. He overdoes it. More effective is Liev Schreiber’s Spassky, who radiates a force field of wary contemplation. He’s a Soviet who, traveling abroad, enjoys the accouterments of Western luxury. He’s also realistic enough to know that beneath Fischer’s manias is a formidable foe. 

There are other good performances, including a small one by Peter Sarsgaard as Fischer’s chess trainer, but overall this is a film in which, as the end credit documentary footage attests, the real story overwhelms its dramatization. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking.)

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