A fantastic performance can’t save this somewhat bland and unrelatable biopic. Pawn Sacrifice is a movie that I just now realized came out about five years ago. It was a movie that intrigued me with the trailers, and I’m also a sucker for Tobey McGuire because I believe he is an incredibly gifted actor that just isn’t working much lately. For some reason I never got around to watching it when it first came out and the lack of awards consideration didn’t help keep it in mind. Recently I was scrolling through Hulu and found it so of course I added it to my list and finally watched it to see if it was as good as I remember the trailers being.
This movie is about a chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer played by Tobey McGuire who is striving to be the best chess player in the world. All of this is based on true events and true real life people and also takes place during the Cold War so of course it’s the U.S. vs Russia. Now the premise is simple enough and isn’t your typical kind of biopic because I believe this to be the only chess movie that I can remember ever seeing. The problem with the premise though is that they actually have to succeed in telling a compelling story about this chess prodigy.
The easiest thing to point out about this movie that stands out is the performance by McGuire. He plays this prodigy who not only stands as being a very different person due to his obsessive desire to become the best chess player, but it gets so bad to the point where he becomes more insane. The man slowly starts to lose himself in his own insanity and paranoia that turns him into someone that can’t handle even himself.
While I do believe McGuire gives an incredible performance in this role, the actual person is such an unlikeable character that it actually hurts the film. In most of these biopics we have a reason to care about the person that we’re watching, but there is never a moment where I actually care that much about him and ever want him to be the best. His obsession makes him both arrogant and obnoxious as he interacts with every other character that has more emotion and feeling than he has ever had.
That does bring me to all of the other characters. Most of them they have smaller roles in comparison to McGuire, but they all succeed at being well rounded supporting characters that I tend to care more about than I do the person the movie is actually about. Liev Schreiber as Boris is a character that I think I would have found more interest in actually watching. He seemed more human and more of a down to earth kind of person that would have been more interesting to see his rise to power leading up to his matches against Bobby.
All of this really does just bring me back to how much I dislike the fact that Bobby is such and unlikeable character. I understand that the man has a very interesting life and story especially following the events of the film, but it really doesn’t make for a compelling film that you can care that much about. The movie seemed to be at its best when we actually got to see Bobby in the middle of a match with someone else. There was real tension as you could feel them struggling with putting together the right maneuvers and plans.
This movie tends to pull away from the matches rather than stick with them for long enough to get fully invested in what it is the fuss is all about. To care for Bobby’s want to strive for greatness, we also need to be able to connect with the subject that is pushing him to this point. We do get a lot of different instances of how chess games are processed in his head, but we just never get to see him playing it that much. The best parts of the movie were towards the end when all of the circus antics finally passed and we got to see Boris and Bobby going at it on the chess board. As soon as I got into the match, they skipped to the end to wrap everything up. It was all just very disappointing by the time I got to the end.
Pawn Sacrifice just can’t be saved by the great performance. It doesn’t live up to the concept of what seemed like a great biopic. The story is interesting and something that I didn’t know much about, but it doesn’t work for me because the subject is not a likeable character that you can connect with or care much about. I’m sure there are some people that this movie will work for, but overall I was disappointed by the film and wanted more out of it. I would recommend passing on it unless you want to watch it for the performance or if you’re a sucker for chess or biopics.