Check Mates: Ed Zwick recreates the Cold War chess showdown between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky

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In the summer of 1972—from July 11 to August 31, between the Watergate break-in and the Munich Olympics massacre—the eyes of the world were riveted on the Laugardalsholl section of Reykjavik, Iceland, watching Bobby Fischer become the first American-born grandmaster to win the World Chess Championship, soundly trouncing the Soviet Union’s defending champion, Boris Spassky. “The Match of the Century” was how it was billed and is how it is remembered. Coming at a time when the Cold War was heating up, Fischer had the elevated public persona that a comic-book action hero has today. Sadly, this only accelerated his galloping paranoia.

Edward Zwick, the director who finally brought this long-time-in-coming historic happening to the screen, was then a high-schooler—and an impressionable one: “I remember lionizing him as our gladiator of the West going forth against the big Soviet bear. He actually was the first of what I would call a kind of pre-punk hero. We were starting to see this in The Rolling Stones. An anti-authoritarian strain was coming out, and it later really flowered. We’ve seen it since with certain athletes and musicians—celebrities who just have a certain ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude—and that’s who he was.”

Public toleration, if not adoration, for difficult divas (when they’re great enough to be forgiven) continues still. Look at Danny Boyle’s forthcoming Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender. Zwick hasn’t yet, but “I know the script. Aaron Sorkin is a friend of mine, so I’ve read it. It’s that same odd respect you have for people who are utterly iconoclastic.”

Fischer’s world-saving/freak-out Moment in Time wears the apt (though commercially questionable) title of Pawn Sacrifice. Penned by British screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace), it lolled on Hollywood’s 2009 Black List of “most liked, unproduced screenplays.” Tobey Maguire and his co-producer, Gail Katz, and their then-director, David Fincher, had initially commissioned two other writers to write it as a Maguire vehicle, but the results didn’t jell, and Knight took over.

“The Black List swirls around Hollywood,” notes Zwick. “If a script isn’t known and it gets on the Black List, it suddenly gets a lot of attention, but most of the scripts that get on the Black List are known and have already been socialized. This wasn’t like ‘I saw it on the Black List and looked at it.’ I knew Gail, Tobey and Steve. It was more of a closed circle.

“Steven brought a deep perspective—and life—to this story, so when they offered it to me I was interested. I was one of the first people to work with Steve when he came over from England. We worked together on two scripts yet to be filmed. One is The Woman Who Walks Ahead, the true story of a portrait painter in the late 19th century who went to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, which led to his return and the massacre at Wounded Knee.”

With Fischer and chess, Zwick had a two-way headache: an erratic eccentric with bratty behavior, a fragile psyche and the weight of the world on his shoulders plus the most passive and un-cinematic of games (even golf and tennis require full-body movements). “Curling is next on my docket,” quips the director who overcame these obstacles for the film, opening Sept. 16 from Bleecker Street.

“I think what Steve found, and what I tried then to mine, was that internal experience—the interior experience of the game—how it relates to personality and how it relates to isolation. I obviously was very interested in a man who had chosen this game—maybe it had chosen him because of his genius—since his own isolation was expressed in a game that demanded greater isolation. Chess, for him, seemed to be both salvation and a curse.

“Bobby believed that chess is about the clash of wills, the dominance of one personality over another, as much about mental toughness as it is about mastering chess moves. In that regard, I remembered a book that I had read by John McPhee called Levels of the Game, about a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968, and what I remembered was that the book became not nearly as much about how one hit the ball or their strokes or form as it was about mental toughness.

“I suddenly saw Bobby’s story through that lens—the idea that one could invest in these people and situations—because there was no way I was going to teach an audience how to play chess. Even if I taught them the basic moves, I could never get into the depth of nuance and complexity of grandmasters. It had to be about something more than chess.

“I think—or, rather, I like to think—that I’ve prepared the audience to understand what’s going on internally in Bobby’s mind, based on how we’ve come to see his experience.”

Zwick’s directorial heavy lifting was primarily confined to squeezing some crackling tension and audience involvement out of those near-mute chess matches. In this regard, the soundtrack is alive with the sounds of silence as well as sounds Fischer would find distracting, and the fast-cut editing quickens the pace and deepens the interplay. “Steve Rosenblum has been my editor since college,” admits Zwick. “I also think these actors, in the subtlest way, work very hard in those close-ups. Their concentration and their understanding with what’s happening and all the complexities are all there in their eyes.”

His smartest casting move was surrounding Maguire with seasoned New York stage actors. “I’m very attracted—always have been—to knowing theatre actors,” he confides.

The power play in the center ring was particularly well-matched: Maguire’s Fischer vs. Liev Schreiber’s Spassky. The latter, a two-time Tony winner, looms over the movie with a gravitas of granite; he is a formidable adversary with little to say (and nearly nothing in English). Save for the charisma and the box-office boast, the role could just as well have been handled by an authentic Russkie. It’s to Schreiber’s credit he does a lot with a little. “I’ve worked with Liev before. He’s one of our premier actors. Certainly, on stage he is.”

Lily Rabe, who plays Fischer’s sister, he found doing Shakespeare in the Park. Other theatre recruits include Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, playing Fischer’s much-put-upon support team: lawyer Paul Marshall and priest-grandmaster Bill Lombardy.

More might have been made of the character of Fischer’s promiscuous, communistic mom, who got his life off to such a rocky start by refusing to reveal his father’s identity. Robin Weigert does as well as she can with what she’s given, but the role is underwritten.

“When you make movies,” Zwick explains, “you have to make very hard choices sometimes. At the end of the day, beyond a certain length, a movie tends to fall apart. This movie had a tension I wanted to grip the audience with—that was the experience I wanted the audience to have of it—and when you digress too much, you risk losing that.

“You don’t go crazy because of how you are raised or have a genetic predisposition to a problem—whether it’s chemical or whatever—but the form that this takes is the legacy of what your experience is. How he was raised was a way to open a window into it.”

Fischer had sporadic flare-ups of fame after his 1972 triumph, most of them diminishing him in the eyes of the world, as his mental health deteriorated and he spiraled downward.

A major reason it took so long to get his story told on the screen was Fischer himself. “I think that we had to wait till he was no longer alive,” theorizes Zwick. “It was a very sad end. For the last number of years of his life, he was not really engaged in the world.”

Tacked onto the film is footage of the real Fischer, a grizzled graybeard in decline. He died on January 18, 2008, at the age of 64, in the town of his greatest moment, Reykjavik. The New York Times identified him as “the most powerful American chess player in history.”