Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
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|Movie Review by Jarrod |
March 3rd, 2011
Prodigies tend to be found, most commonly, in chess, math, and music; each relies upon an intuitive grasp of complex patterns and relationships, but does not require social skills, emotional maturity, or knowledge of human interaction. Indeed, prodigies, such as Mozart, or Srinivasa Ramanujan, lead brief, often troubled lives, victims of their own brilliance, never forming meaningful connections with anybody and dying alone and in poverty.
To this list we could add Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all time; in 1972, he defeated his Russian opponent Boris Spassky in Iceland, winning the world chess championship and making himself into a national hero, before vanishing into a netherworld of paranoid delusions and anti-Semitic outbursts, renouncing fame, wealth, and eventually American citizenship, appearing for a lucrative match in Yugoslavia, and then retreating into self-imposed exile once again. His games were models of elegance and artistry, but his abilities were both a gift and curse, made him into a cranky, insufferable misanthrope, who shunned human contact and whose mind was perhaps always contemplating strategies for victory, at the exclusion of all else.
'Searching for Bobby Fischer' shows footage of the man in various stages of his life, and draws a comparison between him and one of his possible successors, a young boy named Joshua Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), born with a natural talent for chess, nurtured by chess hustlers in New York's Washington Square Park.
He watches them play, and adopts their aggressive, fast-paced style; an early mentor is Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who always emphasizes the importance of keeping an opponent off-balance, to keep surprising them. Josh's parents, Fred (Joe Mantegna) and Bonnie (Joan Allen) are at first doubtful of his talent, and then become proud of it, particularly Fred, who encourages his son to enter tournaments, winning trophies while slowly rising up the ranks, and perhaps competing one day for money and titles.
Josh is also fond of baseball and other typical sports of that type, but chess is where his true calling lies. Fred hires a real teacher for Josh, the prickly Bruce Pandolfi (Ben Kingsley), a former champion who studied Fischer extensively, and sees a bit of Bobby in Josh; his intense passion, devotion, how he can see moves before they are made, and formulate his own in response. There is the issue of whether Josh is being exploited by his father, and there comes a point where he loses interest in chess, losing a match on purpose. Fred expresses his disappointment, and wonders why Josh would do such a thing. Bruce understands this a little better, but competes with Vinnie as an influence on Josh; the difference between the two men and their methods is illustrated only slightly, but effectively, boiling down to how soon you should deploy your queen.
It is, obviously, a metaphorical clash of personalities, but Vinnie seems more supportive, while Bruce feels that Josh should adopt a contempt for his opponents, and think of nothing but defeating them in the most humiliating way. The consequences of this, however, are clearly seen in the arrival of Jonathan Poe, another young chess wiz, tutored by one of Bruce's old rivals. It comes as no surprise that Josh will face off against Jonathan in a climactic match, though the outcome can already be determined.
The film is based on Fred Waitzkin's autobiographical book, and is remarkably sensitive and insightful, at its best when dealing with issues surrounding competitive chess, and the relationship between Fred and Josh, which is earnestly and poignantly portrayed. Fred undoubtedly loves his son, but gets a little carried away; he does not want chess to consume Josh's life, as it does the other kids he meets at the tournament, especially two whose fathers are played by William H Macy and David Paymer, bitter about losing. The movie offers incredibly realistic and detailed depictions and discussions of chess, but is also approachable and comprehensible to the uninformed.
Chess was originally devised, it is said, as a means of teaching war, but is, when stripped down to its essentials, merely a elaborate combination of logical outcomes. To master it requires a sharp, analytical, purely logical mind, similar to that of a computer. Which explains Josh, but does not define him, as rigidly as it defined Fischer, or defines the unfortunate Jonathan. The central performances are splendid, well-balanced and intelligently written; Mantegna, as Frank, becomes invested in Josh's success, but does not monstrously or single-mindedly pursue it. And Max Pomeranc is very good at handling his role with dignity, innocence, and generosity.
In supporting turns, Allen is wonderful as Bonnie, Josh's caring, worried mother, and Kingsley gives possibly the film's most powerful and captivating performance. In the end, we learn much about human nature, and about the specifics of chess as an artistic endeavor. This is much to the credit of screenwriter Steven Zaillian, whose masterful direction and dialogue is aided immeasurably by the sublime yet subtle cinematography of Conrad L Hall (which earned an Oscar nomination).
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