The story of chess champion Bobby Fischer was always ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, rich in Cold War paranoia, FBI surveillance, media celebrity and mad genius. It’s the sort of “Beautiful Mind” narrative that can make for juicy awards bait.
Yet Hollywood ignored Fischer for 43 years. And for good reason, it turned out.
“Pawn Sacrifice,” starring Tobey Maguire as Fischer, is the first feature film on Fischer’s remarkable life since the unhinged mastermind rose in the 1960s and ‘70s to become arguably the greatest player in the history of chess. First, though, the filmmakers had to come to terms with Fischer’s toxic legacy. Maguire found during the decade he spent developing the project that the deeper he mined Fischer’s character, the more labyrinthine and troubling it became.
“He said things that I think made him a difficult person to even know how to approach making a film,” said Maguire, who is also a producer on the film. “I found out many things about Bobby and some of those things did give me pause as far as going forward.... But as you dig in and learn more and more about the entirety of the person, you go, ‘This is a very compelling and complicated figure. And there’s a lot to explore here. And it’s not all pretty.”
The $25-million film, directed by Ed Zwick and costarring Liev Schreiber as Russian chess champ Boris Spassky and Peter Sarsgaard as Fischer’s coach, chronicles the bizarre back story of the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. That game spellbound the world and made Fischer an unlikely American hero in the U.S.-Soviet battle for dominance.
But after he won, Fischer’s fragile psyche came spectacularly undone.
“Here is a man who, in my opinion, chose chess over sanity,” said the film’s screenwriter, Steven Knight.
The movie, which opens Wednesday in Los Angeles in limited release, works as a psychological thriller that begins in Fischer’s troubled childhood, then shifts to a sports drama with all the tension building toward Fischer’s match with Spassky. Schreiber, speaking beautiful Russian, plays against Maguire’s wild-eyed intensity with elegance and humanity.
Together, they illustrate how both men were imprisoned by chess; Fischer by his own mind and Spassky by the Soviet regime.
Documentary footage is interspersed with the chess-playing dialogue-free scenes as Zwick aimed to shift between Fischer’s private hell and the media circus he lived. The effect is “a fragmented portrait that wasn’t dissimilar to what his life might have been,” said Zwick.
Fischer joined the apocalyptic cult Worldwide Church of God for a time, then ended up in Pasadena, consumed by paranoia and living under a pseudonym. In 1992, he replayed Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia. But the match violated U.N. sanctions and the U.S. issued an arrest warrant for Fischer. The chess champ lived the rest of his life in exile, occasionally coming out of seclusion to issue venomous attacks, particularly aimed at Jews.
Though he was born to a Jewish mother and raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, Fischer became infamous for blaming Jews for all the world’s problems, even cheering the September 11 terrorist attacks as “wonderful news.” His story has been told in a number of media, including the 2011 documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World.” But whatever interest Hollywood might have had in Fischer surely dried up after that comment.
Producer Gail Katz wasn’t daunted though. She’d grown up believing Fischer to be a “great Jewish American hero” and found his startling descent cinematic and compelling. She started developing the story at Sony Pictures in 2003, bringing in Maguire to star and produce. Not long after, Fischer was arrested in Japan for traveling on an invalid passport and spent nine months in prison.
They tried for years to shoehorn Fischer’s thorny narrative into a palatable meal for the studio. Knight’s script won over David Fincher to direct, but the studio lost interest and Fincher moved on.
“This is something that on paper seemed a little daunting,” said Katz of the script. “It isn’t the most uplifting story.”
The breadth of the portrait was a tough sell. Zwick described the year and a half search for independent funding “an odyssey” of failed meetings with “the daughters of Russian oligarchs and the sons of Bollywood millionaires.”
Ultimately, Michigan-based film financier Dale Johnson of MICA Entertainment came to the rescue. “Pawn Sacrifice” became the first big acquisition by indie distributor Bleecker Street at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
“What Hollywood may have been looking for in this story was to show the young kid from Brooklyn taking on the Soviet empire and having this great, glorious win,” said Johnson. “At the same time, the true story was that he was having this deep struggle in somewhat of a descent into madness as he was ascending to brilliance. We had to stay true to that story.”
The film opens with Fischer’s childhood as a fatherless boy, raised on conspiracy by Regina Fischer, a Swiss-born, communist mother who wasn’t entirely stable herself. From her, Fischer learned to presume the phones were tapped, that the dark car parked outside belonged to a G-man.
As it turned out, he was often right. The FBI accrued 1,000 pages on him and his mother.
“His paranoia became true,” said Knight. “The better he became at chess, the more surveillance there would be. So the more paranoia there would be.”
As the film depicts, Fischer once told reporters the government was monitoring him through his dental fillings. In real life, Fischer later had all of them removed, leaving him with a mouthful of hollow teeth.
“Paranoids,” he once reportedly told an opponent, “can be right.”
As his fame grew in the 1970s, Fischer demanded exorbitant fees, limos and fancy hotels, then he’d tear apart his rooms looking for wiretaps, claim his food had been poisoned or offhandedly blame a Jewish conspiracy for his failures.
But at the chessboard, his game moved grandmasters to tears. Fischer became a champion people loved to hate, a player the audience booed as he entered a game and cheered as he left.
Maguire and director Zwick envisioned Fischer as a tragic figure, insatiably narcissistic but profoundly alone. Though they didn’t shy from depicting his anti-Semitism, his most virulent rantings were depicted through supporting characters. Ultimately, it’s tough to leave the film without gaining empathy for Fischer.
Experts have speculated for years on Fischer’s diagnosis, which has included schizophrenia, Asperger’s syndrome and paranoid personality disorder. In the end, the 64-year-old Fischer died of kidney failure in 2008, alone in Iceland, his U.S. passport revoked, his legacy indelibly tainted.
“Chess was a place of safety for Bobby,” said Maguire. “The question is, was chess compromising Bobby’s mental health? Or was it staving off his inevitability?”