Ask yourself “How can a film about a young boy playing chess be entertaining, riveting, and keep kids of all ages in their seats”? Director Steven Zaillians does just that in his directorial debut. I wrote kids of all ages, that includes adults. This is a great film for the entire family. It has a PG rating, thankfully, no violence, no bad language, no nudity, but a family encouraging their seven year son to play chess.
Josh Waizkin, beautifully played by Max Pomeranc, becomes fascinated by the game of chess by watching people play speed chess in Washington Square Park. It isn’t long before he can beat them all, including hustler Vinnie, convincingly played by Laurence Fishburne. His father encourages him to go to the next level and employs chess master, Bruce Pandolfini, cold bloodily played by academy award winner Sir Ben Kingsley, to train in the art of competitive chess. Soon he is on the tournament circuit and he realizes he enjoys playing chess more than competing. Josh has too much heart to learn the lesson Bruce tries to employ which is hating his opponents. This leads him to the fear that he could actually lose.
Frank, emotionally played by Joe Mantagna, Josh’s father, pushes him to be a winner with subtle pressure. Winning becomes so important to Frank that Josh is afraid that failing may risk losing his father’s love. It’s then that chess becomes a burden and he stops enjoying it.
How important have games become in our culture? Are they so crucial that we lose sight of the pure fun of just participating? These are some of the questions this film probes. Go to a little league game and watch not only the young athletes but also the parents in the stands. Parents are rooting and yelling “helpful” pointers to their kids. Supporting our kids and being proud of their achievements is imperative, however the problem begins when parent’s dreams become more important than the kids derive from playing.
The film does explain that Bobby Fischer was arguable the greatest chess player of all time. As a boy he faced and defeated the highest ranking players of the day. In 1972 after numerous controversies, he won the world championship away from the Russians for the first time in years. Afterwards he essentially disappeared to phantom sightings, paranoid outbursts, and allegiance to strange religious cults. He reappeared occasionally to play lucrative matches all over the world. His games have been studied by masters for their elegance and artistry, but his life didn’t inspire envy.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is a fascinating film full of human trials and triumphs, of people, emotions, and the pressures that surround Josh. Chess may not be the most exciting spectator sport but this film makes for engaging entertainment.