THE DOCUMENTARY "Bobby Fischer Against the World"
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on HBO
REASON TO WATCH Complete overview of Bobby Fischer's 1972 chess assault on Boris Spassky
WHAT IT'S ABOUT 1972. Watergate. Vietnam. "The Godfather." And then, this chess match between a gangly, eccentric genius from Brooklyn and a carefully groomed Soviet champion short-handed as "Fischer vs. Spassky." In that arctic moment of the Cold War, the match (in Iceland, no less) took on a near-mythic stature.
This film by Liz Garbus ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib") charts Fischer's troubled early years in Brooklyn; his obsession with chess; and especially the epochal match and accompanying media circus, fed by a will-he-or-won't-he-turn-up guessing game that wasn't answered until after the match began (he was more than an hour late.)
Fischer was so conflicted by the match that he hid out for days in the Douglaston house of Dr. Anthony Saidy, another chess prodigy, who's interviewed here. Even Henry Kissinger's intercession failed to budge him. But when the purse was upped, Fischer went. MY SAY Garbus is a particularly fine filmmaker, but even she (and partner Rory Kennedy) can't crack this particular nut. Fischer, as most casual observers know, pretty much lost his mind after the '72 match. His story is certainly tragic, rendered unsympathetic by his virulent anti-Semitism and post 9/11 rant against the United States. Garbus almost succumbs to the temptation to explain his behavior by suggesting that the singular pursuit of chess is ultimately bad for the psyche -- when in fact Fischer had simply refused to take his meds. He died in 2008, after a long, dark decline. This intelligent, sensitive portrait effectively explores a lost childhood and remarkable mind. It's engrossing to a point, then tiresome.
Meanwhile, if you're in the mood for another titanic '70s cultural battle, check out Saturday's "McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice" (HBO, 10 p.m.). It's utterly fascinating, and another portrait of obsessive brilliance. At least "Fire & Ice" has a happy ending.
GRADE(S) B+ ("Fischer");