Across and Down

Wordplay

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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