When a big movie has been made about a big enigmatic person, you want to know pretty quickly why you should watch it. In most feature films, we meet a hero or maybe even an attractive evil creature. This is a big movie with historical context smeared all over it, but it takes a long time to figure out why we should care about its topic, fussypants chess player Bobby Fischer.
For the first two-thirds of this movie, we watch Fischer (Tobey Maguire) throw tantrums, make absurd demands, and just not show up. He has great talent, we learn, though only in newsreel montages. He also has a strange cadre of enablers like Paul (Michael Stuhlbarg), who might be CIA, and Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), a chess-loving priest whose relationship to Fischer is never explained. The sidekicks are far more watchable than the hissy-fit hero.
In fact, little about this historical drama is made clear, even for those of us who remember it. There are hints about Watergate, 1970s narcissism, and Cold War posturing that suggests we are in a cockeyed world. What we never learn about is chess. The only time this film ever comes fully alive is when Fischer is playing. One monologue about the history of the game, its core rules, or even funny stories would have helped us care. Remember Salieri’s music lectures in Amadeus? They made that film’s high jinks and tragedy resonate. In this film, we read on a title that game six of the Spassky-Fischer duel was the greatest chess game ever played, but not why.
Hollywood dreads engaging the intellect, but it’s hard to imagine people not interested in chess heading out for the multiplex. I feel like I know less now. This movie has a final, dark monologue that spells out a profound sense of futility. Nice move. But that and a few tense games are all we get to counter the image of a brat from Brooklyn who commandeers the news cycle. Justin Bieber looks good by comparison.