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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Bobby’: All the Right Moves

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The board has 64 squares, alternating light and dark. The pieces number 16 on each side, including king, queen, knights and (for what is combat without them) a full complement of pawns. The game is chess, only maybe it isn’t really a game but a sport, a science, perhaps an art, but always an obsession. And the quest for mastery of it at the highest levels has driven brilliant men quite literally mad and destroyed human relationships with the finality of an ax.

“Searching for Bobby Fischer” (citywide) is set in the world of chess, but it wouldn’t be a fraction of the film it is if chess were all it is about. A story of childhood simultaneously exalted and at risk, of the demands of parenthood and the burdens of competition and of genius, it is also the most impressive and promising of directing debuts.

For writer-director Steven Zaillian proves as much of a prodigy as his chess-playing subject, turning out a film that is a beautifully calibrated model of honestly sentimental filmmaking, made with delicacy, restraint and unmistakable emotional power. The feelings it goes for are almost never the easy or obvious ones, and the levers it presses are all the more effective because of that.

Nominated for an Academy Award for the script of “Awakenings” (a prime example of dishonestly sentimental direction) and the writer who has adapted Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s List” for Steven Spielberg, Zaillian once again deals with a true story. “Bobby Fischer” tells what happens when a typical New York City kid with dreams of playing second base for the Yankees discovers that he has so much innate chess ability that he puts people in mind of that celebrated former world champion, as breathtaking a player as ever lived.

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Given his abilities as a writer, it might be expected that as a director Zaillian would lean too hard on his own words, so one of the things that is most impressive about “Bobby Fischer” is that the opposite is true. Considerably aided by celebrated director of photography Conrad Hall, Zaillian, determined to tell his story without words whenever possible, has made a conspicuously visual debut.

This nonverbal assurance is most impressive in the film’s opening scene. Seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is fooling around with some pals in a park when for no particular reason he looks up and sees a group of men playing chess, the pieces and the board curiously reflected in a pair of sunglasses. Not a word is spoken, nothing is heard but James Horner’s evocative score, but the subliminal connection Josh makes with the game, the way the lust for it seeps into his blood, is magically visible on the screen.

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On the surface Josh remains a regular kid, getting his baseball mitt oiled by his sportswriter father Fred (Joe Mantegna) and taking walks in Washington Square Park with mother Bonnie (Joan Allen). But on his own he has somehow mastered the basics of the game, even constructed his own set of chessmen, and on one of those walks he pulls his uncertain mother over to watch the park’s raffish group of regular players go at it.

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Soon he starts to play, and his ability catches the eye of Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), a shaved-head, jive-talking, cigarette-dangling possibly drug-using master chess hustler who writes Josh’s name down on a newspaper, much to his mother’s horror. “Hey, the boy used pieces in combination, in attack,” Vinnie yells after her as she, uncertain whether to feel pleased or threatened, nervously shepherds the boy toward home.

After Fred Waitzkin is convinced (in a clever, humorous and again largely visual scene) of Josh’s ability, father and son head off to a local chess club to approach somber guru Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) about teaching him.

No, Pandolfini says, he doesn’t teach anymore. Period. But a glimpse of Josh at the board makes the man doubt his resolve. Then he tries to undermine Fred’s resolve to see his son succeed in chess by telling him about what a neurotic-ridden, miserly world it is. Finally, he tells the father the truth. Chess may be an art, but “most players, even the great ones, are forgers. Your son creates. Like Bobby Fischer.”

Though this may sound like some kind of happy ending, it is in fact only the beginning of a whole series of painful struggles, initially between Josh’s two mentors for control of his mind and his game. The emotional Vinnie believes in attitude and tactics, the conservative Pandolfini in preparation and position. Neither man is above manipulation and each wishes the other would shrivel up and go away, but one of the graces of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” is how well it understands that to portray them as simply vice and virtue would do an injustice to what is a considerably more intricate reality.

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For it turns out that everyone who comes into contact with the enormity of Josh’s gift has an agenda, a stake in the boy’s success, even his father. Though initially unconcerned and even blase about his son’s accomplishments, Fred Waitzkin soon gets caught up against his will in the blood sport of winning, snapping at an uncomprehending teacher, “My son is better at this than I’ve been at anything in my life.”

At its core, then, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” is about much larger issues. What do you do when your child is a genius, how do you best serve both the gift and the tiny, fragile person who possesses it? Can Josh survive as a person and still be a champion, or must his decency be beaten out of him if he is to reach his maximum potential? And, hovering over all these questions, evoked in newsreels, interviews and Josh’s voice-over, is the cautionary spirit of Bobby Fischer, a vision of the ultimate boy genius gone painfully astray.

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Though its thrust is undeniably sentimental, it can’t be overstated how elegantly writer-director Zaillian has put this together. He has gotten all the right notes from veterans Kingsley, Mantegna and Allen, while Fishburne, who seems to just get better and better, is electric in his small but pivotal role. Most impressive is the performance that comes from Pomeranc, himself a gifted chess player making his acting debut, whose soulful work as a miniature adult with the most trusting eyes is guilelessly convincing.

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In addition to all these adult riches, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” happens to be rated PG (for thematic elements), making it the family film anyone with a family has been hoping for with increasing desperation. Unwilling to patronize the children in its cast and unable to let its concern for values stand in the way of on-screen excitement, its final message is “there are only so many things you can teach a child. Finally, they are who they are.” Can there be any doubt but that this is a film not only to enjoy but also to cherish?

‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’

Max Pomeranc: Josh Waitzkin

Joe Mantegna: Fred Waitzkin

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Joan Allen: Bonnie Waitzkin

Ben Kingsley: Bruce Pandolfini

Laurence Fishburne: Vinnie

A Scott Rudin/Mirage production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Steven Zaillian. Producers Scott Rudin, William Horberg. Executive producer Sydney Pollack. Screenplay Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Fred Waitzkin. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Editor Wayne Wahrman. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music James Horner. Production design David Gropman. Art director Gregory P. Keen. Set decorator Steve Shewchuk. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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MPAA-rated PG (thematic elements).


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