Searching for Bobby Fischer — (1993) Film Review
“Life is like a chess game — you don’t want to waste a move.”
- Bing Gordon, 2013
“We learn little from victory, much from defeat.”
- Japanese proverb
Every so often (not often enough) a film comes along that not only charms at initial viewing, but adheres in memory.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” is one such work. Based on the book by Fred Waitzkin, it marked the directorial debut of Steve Zaillian, better known perhaps as a screenwriter. It was natural that he would write the screenplay as well as be the auteur for this wonderful film which Roger Ebert described as the ‘first intelligent movie about chess’ he’d seen.
It is intelligent, but much more. Touching, artistic. In sum, well made. I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office ($7M). But many works which receive critical acclaim (which this did) seem to languish at the box office.
I can particularly relate because its main protagonist, Josh Waitzkin, was only 7 when his prowess at chess came to light.
My grandson is 7, and it’s a matter of some interest to see which activities he gravitates toward, and which not. Both his parents and others seem inclined to let him proceed at his own pace, which I think a good thing. In some matters he seems not yet to have decided handedness.
Josh seems well rounded, but has a particular gift for chess, which he apparently learned on his own. So gifted is he that, upon discovery that he is a prodigy, his father Fred (played by Joe Mantegna) tells his schoolteacher (Laura Linney), “He’s better at chess than I’ll ever be at anything.” Then has the temerity to add, “And better than you’ll ever be at anything.” Perhaps accurate, but still presumptuous. She is left speechless.
Josh is drawn to the park hustlers at Washington Square, including one Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne, much in character; in real life his mother once said off the set he often had difficulty getting OUT of character), who plays a frenetic game and encourages John to move his queen early.
One nicety about the film is that one need not be conversant with chess to be entertained and enlightened.
Early in the film, Josh asks his mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) about Vinnie’s sleeping whereabouts. She doesn’t know, but tells Josh, in a memorable line, “You have a good heart, and that’s the most important thing in the world.”
Josh’s parents decide to engage the services of a chess teacher. Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley, with hair) was once an accomplished chess player and gave lessons at one time. No more.
Until he sees Josh play.
But Bruce is adamantly against the queen being moved too early in a game.
Chess is a bit like Little League baseball in the manner in which parents live vicariously through their children. So much so that, because of bickering during a state tournament, the parents (including Fred) are moved from the playing area to another, away from their children, but continue to fret anyway.
Interwoven at periodic intervals are black and white video snippets of Bobby Fischer, narrated by Josh. A nice touch.
At the park, Josh sees another chess prodigy, a boy named Jonathan Poe, beat an older man in a match. Whereupon Jonathan says, without benignity, to his vanquished opponent, “Trick or treat.”
In some ways, Josh seems very normal.
He expresses fear he will lose in the state finals. He muses, “Maybe it’s better not to be the best. Then you can lose and it’s OK.”
He very much wants the approval of his father, whom he lets win at chess at home before Fred realizes how gifted is his son.
Bruce tries to develop a killer instinct in Josh. He tells him he must have contempt for his opponents — even hate them, if he is to win.
Josh says, “I don’t hate them.”
Bruce says, “They hate you.”
Then adds, “Bobby Fisher held the world in contempt.” Which he indeed seemed to do.
“But I’m not him,” says Josh.
I appreciated the close-ups, the pacing, the music. The dialogue, and what was not said, but, often with a glance, inferred or implied.
A heartwarming moment in the national finals occurs when Bruce (who had initially told Fred he wouldn’t attend; he had been expelled from the house during a lesson, by Bonnie) presents Josh with a master certificate, something Josh had coveted during earlier lessons. They embrace.
During the final match, between Josh and Jonathan Poe, in another room beyond hearing, tension builds. Vinnie encourages Josh to bring his queen out early. Bruce says, “Don’t do it. Don’t even think of doing it.” The two glare at each other.
As the game wears on, Josh tells Jonathan, “Trick or treat.”
Near the end, on his turn, Josh pauses, thinking to himself, “I can’t see it.”
Bruce, in another room, cautions, “Don’t move till you see it.”
IT is an outcome 12 moves in the future.
Flashback to an earlier lesson when Bruce tried to get Josh to think ahead. “Here, I’ll make it easier for you!” and sweeps all the playing pieces off the chessboard onto the floor. And Josh did see.
When Josh does see it, he extends a hand, offering Jonathan a draw. Josh says, “Take the draw. We’ll share the championship.”
His opponent scoffs; he has not seen IT. He refuses the offer of a draw and goes on to lose.
Afterward Josh tells his father, “I tried to give him a way out.”
Bobby Fischer never saw the movie and (in character) criticized it without viewing.
A shame. I think even he might have enjoyed this gem.
But perhaps not. His genius at chess seemed only slightly greater than his ability to offend with his often-negative behavior away from the chessboard.
Many critics did appreciate the artistry of the film.
I know I did.
In the cosmic scheme of things, we’re offered a way out.
How many will take that offer, extended by a hand upon which the scars of Golgotha will ever remain imprinted?