Madness, in reality, tends to be tedious; most people who struggle with mental illness get up every day and manage their routine without constantly ranting about being spied upon or dismantling their office to track down phantom bugs. But that makes for a dull translation on the movie screen. Hence Hollywood has to come up with attention-holding ways to tell the story of a character with mental issues. One way is to focus on the relationship between the patient and therapist, but if the character never seeks mental help to begin with, as in “Pawn Sacrifice,” that obviously can’t happen. In this case, the main character, Bobby Fischer, is presented as perpetually paranoid and doesn’t improve or change in markedly noticeable ways.
In this movie, Tobey Maguire as the chess grandmaster/genius, huffs and puffs and does everything but blow the house down to be convincing, and does a good job, but at some level, I was always aware I was watching Tobey Maguire put on a performance. Bobby is played in flashbacks at earlier ages, and the adolescent Bobby (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) has a convincing Brooklyn accent, but by the time the characters morphs into Tobey, he seems to have lost most of it and sounds more like, well, Tobey.
We first see Bobby Fischer as a young child, interrupting his mother and her guests to inform her that there’s an unfamiliar car outside, and indeed the real Mrs. Fischer was investigated by the FBI for the crime of spending time in Russia. The mother then rehearses with her son what to say if he’s ever stopped and questioned, which is “I have nothing to say to you.” Eventually, he teaches himself chess and begins playing in Washington Square, though he’s often impatient at the slowness of his opponents. He then sets out to become the greatest player of all, which includes defeating opponents from the Soviet Union. After a few starts and stops, he starts playing in earnest, traveling the world with a priest mentor (Peter Sarsgaard) and a journalist (Michael Stuhlbarg). Ultimately, he will compete against the Russian champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a 1972 match in Iceland with the eyes of the world on them. In an epilogue, we’re told that Fischer turned down millions in endorsements and disappeared from the public eye.
There are several theories floated in the film about the main character’s shaky mental health. One is that, like Mozart, being partly unstable comes with being a genius. Another, detailed by Liev, is that the paranoia and “delusions” are actually cannily employed strategies to throw off Bobby’s opponents. Would treatment somehow remove his desire to be the best in the world, even as it decreased his tendency to dismantle the hotel phone and insist on as close to complete silence during matches as possible? And there’s the chicken and egg question: does chess somehow trigger mental instability or does it merely attract the brilliant and eccentric? Overall, this is a movie which despite its real life inaccuracies, raises intriguing questions like these.