Across and Down


A documentary written by Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley, and directed by Creadon.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

As Hollywood features get more and more formulaic — special-effects extravaganzas, narcissistic fantasies flattering the yuppie audiences, animated tales with famous stars giving voice to cynical sitcom dialogue — the only movies worth waiting for seem to be documentaries. Recently we’ve gotten Why We Fight and An Inconvenient Truth; now, there is Wordplay.

It is not just, or even mainly, a matter of choosing interesting subjects. The obsessive, eccentric crossword puzzlers in Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay are not, on first glance, great camera subjects. Most of them look like ordinary people you would walk by on the street, or sit next to on a bus or in a laundromat.

To be sure, the movie is dotted with celebrity crossword-puzzlers: Daily Show host Jon Stewart, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and former president Bill Clinton. But the people who show up at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, as serious contenders in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, are not what most Hollywood players would call “star material”; nor are the brilliant introverts who construct the puzzles.

It is this year’s tournament in Stamford that provides the framework for this engaging, fascinating, and highly entertaining film. First we meet Will Shortz, Puzzle Editor of the New York Times, who founded the tournament in 1978 and still runs it today. We then meet a couple of his puzzle constructors, then the more or less famous people who can’t go through a day without pitting themselves against the New York Times crossword, and then the half dozen or so unique yet ordinary people who have won tournaments in the past and from whose number this year’s winner is likely to come.

If Wordplay illustrates any constant principle, it is Anthony Powell’s statement that “Up close, all people are equally extraordinary.”

Self-described “nerd” Ellen Ripstein, who won the tournament in 2001, scores a deft coup against those who put down such contests as silly or trivial. A former boyfriend was disparaging her accomplishment and she said to him: “What are you better at than anybody else in the country?”

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