Originally shown September 30, 2009
When I was about nine or ten years old, a friend of my father’s came over to our house. Later in the evening they took out my checkerboard and played this game with funny-looking pieces. My father said this game was called chess, and when I asked how it was played, he said, “I’ll teach you when you’re older.” Well, I did not want to wait, so I went to the school library the next day and checked out a book with all of the rules. About a month later, I challenged him to a game; he let me win to get me excited about it.
I tell you all of that basically to show why I would like to be objective about the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, but unfortunately I can’t. This is a picture which is close to my heart in just about every way.
The title is a bit misleading, as are the movie’s interludes about Fischer, the last American grandmaster to be World Champion who retired into seclusion rather than defend his title. In reality the movie is all about scholastic chess in New York City: how young prodigies constantly emerge from that scene with the title of “the next Fischer,” and the expectations that come with it. To give you an idea of how good the movie’s subject Josh Waitzkin was, he drew an exhibition game with then-World Champion Garry Kasparov around the same time I asked my Dad how to play.
The movie is adapted by a book from Josh’s father Fred (Joe Mantegna), who learns that Josh (Max Pomeranc) is a chess prodigy when he demonstrates knowledge of the game against hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. He arranges for Josh to enter the prestigious Dalton Academy, a real school which actually does have a renowned chess team, and looks up the famed chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Sir Ben Kingsley) to coach him. Fred wants his son to take very seriously the level of gift that he has, because as he says in one of the movie’s most affecting lines, Josh is better at chess than he will ever be at anything. Pandolfini wants Josh to take the game as seriously as Fischer did, because Fischer’s monomania about winning is the ultimate expression of his teaching. However, the more serious Josh gets, the more he invites a different sort of problem. I will return to my own chess career to explain.
I had some nice games, managed to beat a master every once in a while, but maintaining that level of play proved too tough for me. I knew that the writing was on the wall when I played in the Atlantic Open in downtown Washington, D.C. about six or seven years ago. In the second round I faced this kid. He already had a rating about a hundred and fifty points higher than mine, and he dispatched me so easily that I knew his rating should have been much higher. His name was Fabiano Caruana, and he is currently one of the top 25 grandmasters in the world.
Before we played, Caruana’s father set up his pieces and clock for him, speaking seriously in Italian all the while; he seemed as much business manager as parent. I began to wonder if he was going to be one of those chess dads, the sort that Fred is constantly worrying about turning into, and that was when I really understood how timeless this movie’s message is.* The kid may tell you that he’s playing to make himself happy, but how does he know? He’s just a kid!
Josh would love to simply play blitz chess in the park with his mentor (Lawrence Fishburne, playing a character invented for the film), to play with his friends, to have a good time with his dad … to be a kid, basically. However, all of the adults who would like to see him succeed put an adult level of pressure upon him. Plus, the pressure of actually winning amidst all the other prodigies is a problem; like I said, there’s just a limit to how good one can get, and Josh is worried about having reached it. I don’t know if Pomeranc is actually a good actor in the movie, but he has a terrific look, huge puppy-dog eyes which make any amount of pressure put upon him seem like a tragedy.
The movie’s chess scenes are realistic and they do a fine job of compensating for the issue that chess is not much of a spectator sport. If you actually know anything about chess, they’re even better: the writer William Goldman tells a great story of how the studio screened the film for an audience of chess players, who whooped and cheered during the film like they were in a football stadium. The more boring aspects of tournament chess are covered with tense (and often hilarious) scenes of Fred and the other parents sweating in basements, kept away from their kids’ matches to avoid making a scene. The lone mistake the film makes is that it chooses a nonsensical way to indicate Josh has learned that winning isn’t everything; the number of chess players who would make the same decision is literally zero, but the movie sells the scene well.
Every actor in the movie is a ringer, even Joan Allen in a mostly thankless role as Josh’s mother. This picture is so loaded that William H. Macy and Laura Linney are reduced to cameo appearances. Having said that, no one of them really wowed me. The movie is arguably as much Fred’s story, while Pandolfini and Fishburne both have important roles, but none of them really assets himself as an actor more than the others. This movie pretty much belongs with Pomeranc’s face, oddly sad even when the character he’s playing is happy.
Searching for Bobby Fischer was shown at Movie Klub before I started attending; members who were there indicated that it “held up well.” I watched it again as I wrote this review, and although I still loved it, it doesn’t hold up quite so well for me because Fischer’s end was so depressing. After tax problems with the United States government, Fischer eventually retired to the Phillippines, where he received a radio show. He was live on the air during the September 11, 2001 attacks, which he exulted as triumphant strikes against both Jews and the U.S. He signed off on that broadcast by saying, “Death to America!” Fischer died in exile seven years later, of a kidney ailment that could have been easily treated if he had trusted any doctors.
You might say that Fischer is an extreme example of what kids like Josh Waitzkin could become, if the pressure to win is not tempered. The movie is definitely headed in that direction. Yet no other chess player has had their obituary headline the websites of the New York Times and ESPN.com on the same day. Yet no obituary of Fischer can discuss his repugnant behavior without adding in the same breath that he was also a genius. Yet you’d have to check Josh Waitzkin’s Wikipedia page to know that he later gave up chess for the martial arts. The movie would like us to think that winning isn’t everything; I think maybe the filmmakers got that one wrong, but it’s not their fault as much as ours.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*I’m not trying to demean the elder Caruana; he turned out to be a perfectly decent person. I’m just saying, you always have to watch out for those chess dads.