Rating: 4 Out Of 5 Stars
IT is a clever trick to find a personal story that somehow illustrates an epoch. The tale of chess champion Bobby Fischer does so.
While at face value this is the tragic story of how a chess genius won the world title and then slowly slipped into a crazed world of his fast-moving mind’s own making, it is more than that. It is a Cold War story, a social history of a period. Fischer’s 1972 battle with Soviet chess master Boris Spassky to win the world crown is the dramatic axle this film sits on.
We watch as Fischer starts life as a precocious Brooklyn boy, whose Communist mother is to be found on anti-war demonstrations and various human rights picket lines. Fatherless and with a mum who is painted as caring a little more for politics than her offspring, he immerses himself in the game, playing older people in chess cafés, many of them emigres and giving him a central European-flavoured youth.
We follow him as he grows from a skinny and well-turned-out youth into a chess fanatic, and master of the game.
We are given some fascinating background into his training – Fischer was interested in how the body acted as a vessel for the mind, and worked out fanatically to make sure he could be sharp as a pin when at the board. Looking like a young Nicholas Cage, the film takes us to his world champion showdown with Spassky. That provides the main narrative thrust of this excellent documentary.
This isn’t the most complete of pictures painted, but that is hardly surprising when you consider how Fischer spent the last 30 years of his life as a pariah, a recluse, and someone whose views were abhorrent to any sane person.
There are some gaps I’d like to have filled in. Spassky doesn’t appear, and there is no illuminating information about Fischer’s later wandering years as he trawled around the globe, searching not only for some form of inner peace but a nation that would allow him to settle. Eventually he ended up in Iceland, the scene of his great triumph – where he stayed until the end of his days.
Director Liz Garbus has plenty of strong credits to her name – a film on a Louisiana prison called The Farm, another on the death penalty called The Execution of Wanda Jean, and a treatise on free speech, Shouting Fire.
With the help of outstanding archive footage – the interviews with a young Fischer point the way to the unhappy adulthood that awaited – this is an enlightening documentary on a seminal figure of 20th century history.
Furthermore, you can get a sense of what it must have been like to be heralded as a child genius in this lonely sport, and what it could have done to Fischer as a person.
The breakdowns and signs of severe paranoia and illness are all too apparent early on – in one interview with a young Fischer he says he won’t watch TV because he fears radiation doses.
Later he was to become anti-Semitic, bang on about conspiracy theories, join evangelical churches and generally act wired. It meant his great talent became a burden rather than something he wanted to celebrate.
Published: 14 July, 2011
by DAN CARRIER