TORONTO – There might have been something more nerve-wracking than being an opponent to world chess champion Bobby Fischer, and that was being the mercurial man’s minder.
“Pawn Sacrifice,” a film premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, chronicles not only the rise of the young American grandmaster but how hard it was to get him to his crowning moment, the famous “Match of the Century” in 1972 against Soviet rival Boris Spassky.
Fischer, played by Tobey Maguire, is rude, inappropriate, anti-Semitic, unpredictable, brilliant, and as director Edward Zwick says, “probably paranoid and delusional.” He is also a cultural hero ill-equipped to handle his celebrity.
Spassky is, on the other hand, a cool cat who enjoys the privileges as an icon of the Soviet state. He is played by Liev Schreiber, who speaks Russian in much of the film in what the actor called “one of the scariest things I have ever done.”
Spassky, the world champion, and Fischer, the challenger, find themselves in a Cold War proxy battle when they agree to the “Match of the Century” to be played in Iceland. On the newscasts, their showdown upstages the Vietnam War and the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in what would become the Watergate scandal.
“I don’t think it was about America or the Russian program for either of them,” said Schreiber. “I think it was about being No. 1.”
“Appreciate the exquisiteness”
The irascible Fischer threatens to upend the competition at every turn, demanding more money and going missing right before he is to fly to Reykjavik, much to the frustration of his handlers, a savvy lawyer and a patient priest played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard.
Once there, Fischer doesn’t show for one match and won’t proceed unless he and Spassky play in a ping-pong room away from the crowd. Spassky agrees even though he could win the championship by forfeit.
“To Boris’ credit, he wanted Bobby to be at his best,” said Schreiber. “I don’t think Boris wanted to meet a lesser Bobby.”
Fischer told an interviewer that what he enjoyed most was seeing his opponent crumble inside as he realized all was lost. When that moment comes for Spassky, Schreiber said he and Maguire played it out in blissful silence.
Despite having surrendered the Soviet Union’s decades-long world chess supremacy, Spassky does the unthinkable, standing up and applauding his opponent on stage.
“As driven as he was to win, he loved the game so much that he couldn’t help smile and appreciate the exquisiteness of what Fischer did to him,” said Schreiber.
Zwick said audiences should not be intimidated if they don’t know a pawn sacrifice, a Sicilian defense or any other move.
Chess, he has discovered, “tends to be about the dominance of one personality by another.”
The film went to Toronto seeking a distributor and new company Bleecker Street bought the North American rights. “Pawn Sacrifice” will be released in 2015. Reuters