In the middle of the last century, a lad emerged from Brooklyn who was better at a board game than anyone in history had ever been. Little would have been made of this by the world at large, except that the board game was chess, there was a Cold War raging, and certain U.S. government circles saw a huge potential PR coup if Bobby Fischer could whip the reigning world champion, Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. This was harder to do than they thought, as Bobby was obsessed, wildly paranoid, a misanthrope, and well on his way to becoming madder than a rat in a rain barrel. Also a raging anti-Semite, which is a good trick for a Jewish kid.
Chess can’t be the easiest game to fit into the sports movie formula, but Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, Blood Diamond) makes it work on this level. And it’s only partly that. After all, when you look at it, the events chronicled in this handsomely crafted biopic are less about the noble game than the psychological warfare for which it served as a proxy.
A glowering Liev Schreiber is great as Spassky, who says little, and that in Russian, and Peter Sarsgaard hits the right notes with his portrayal of Father Bill Lombardy, Fischer’s confidant and sparring partner. But this movie succeeds on the edgy and charismatic braggadocio performance by Tobey Maguire. It’s his best work in ages. Absorbing, intelligent, and suspenseful. Japanese title: Kanzen naru Checkmate. (115 min)