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'Pawn Sacrifice' review: Bobby Fischer before the endgame

Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice."

Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer in "Pawn Sacrifice." Credit: Takashi Seida

While it stops short of the fugitive globe-trotting and anti-Semitic ravings of Bobby Fischer's later years, the gripping "Pawn Sacrifice" portrays the late chess genius (Tobey Maguire) as a problematic psychological time bomb. Raised in the paranoid Red Scare atmosphere of his leftist mother's Brooklyn apartment, obsessed with chess from the age of 6 (after finding a book on the game during a family vacation in Patchogue), he was apparently tortured by the same angel-demons that gave him his gift.

Fischer's mental instability was put on worldwide display when he faced Soviet world chess champion Boris Spassky in 1972, in what was seen as a showdown between the capitalist West and communist East. Fischer, who was either a defiant idealist or just out for himself, walked away from the game. He had to be cajoled by the likes of Henry Kissinger to go back to Iceland and finish the match.

You can easily Google what happened, but it won't make much difference. "Pawn Sacrifice," director Ed Zwick's intelligent, well-paced and ultimately thrilling account of Fischer's most famous and decidedly lunatic moments, maintains a tension from its opening move (despite an attempt to apply a sociological cause-and-effect around what was almost certainly an organic mental problem).

Maguire's portrayal possesses the proper balance of unease and egomania to capture the Fischer of public memory, despite the actor's lack of resemblance to the real-life Brooklyn grandmaster. He does have the eyes, though: There's more going on behind Fischer's haunted look than just chess moves.

Liev Schreiber gives a wonderfully understated performance as the stolid Spassky, a perfect counterweight to Fischer; Michael Stuhlbarg is properly perplexed as Fischer's handler, Paul Marshall; and Peter Sarsgaard provides a touch of serenity as Bill Lombardy, the Catholic priest who coached Fischer from age 11, and was his confidant.

Fischer may not be Mozart or Van Gogh, but he points up why true genius can be highly cinematic -- it provides natural conflict, drama and a central figure who is a subject of sympathy. But not envy. Few would want to actually be the Bobby Fischer of "Pawn Sacrifice." Few won't find him a subject of intellectual and emotional fascination.

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