‘Pawn Sacrifice’ urges belief discipline, management

“Pawn Sacrifice” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Aiden Lovekamp, Sophie Nélisse, Conrad Pla, Evelyne Brochu, Igor Ovadis, Bobo Vian. Archive Footage: Dick Cavett. Director: Edward Zwick. Screenplay: Steven Knight. Story: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Steven Knight. Web site. Trailer.

It can be a wonderful feeling when our heads are filled with ideas. Envisioning and considering the possibilities is an often-exhilarating experience, enthusiastically infusing our minds with a tantalizing array of prospects. This is especially true for those seeking to map out strategies for achieving particular objectives. But the process can also become easily overwhelming, leaving those once-excited heads spinning perilously out of control. Such are the circumstances detailed in the captivating new historical drama, “Pawn Sacrifice.”

In 1972, the world was mesmerized by a seemingly unlikely event – a chess tournament. To be sure, this time-honored “game of kings” had long had more than its ample share of followers, but, in this match, the stakes were higher than just proving which participant was the better competitive strategist. The contest pitted Soviet world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) against upstart American challenger Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) at the height of the Cold War. The competition was a sort of proxy conflict between the two nations, with their respective representatives serving as surrogate warriors. And the event’s understood though unstated aim was to prove to the world which side was intellectually superior – and thus worthy of allegedly deserved respect and admiration.

While the planet was spellbound with what was transpiring on this improbable global stage, there was an even more fascinating story unfolding behind the scenes, particularly where America’s contender was concerned. It was an unusual tale that began years before the tournament, eventually culminating in a tense, often-bizarre series of events in which a host of considerations ranging from geopolitical perceptions and personal sanity came up for grabs. And that back story, told largely through flashbacks, provides the basis for the narrative of this film.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, a young Bobby Fischer (Aiden Lovekamp) and his half-sister, Joan (Sophie Nélisse), were raised (albeit somewhat haphazardly) by their single mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), a Jewish nonconformist who enjoyed the company of many suitors and fellow freethinkers, including a number of left-wing sympathizers. Regina had a variety of ambitions, such as entering politics, but, because of her ideological leanings, she believed she was the subject of covert government surveillance during the rise of McCarthyism. Given his mother’s freewheeling lifestyle, Bobby was often left in the care of his sister or on his own, spending much time alone. It was during such periods of solitude that he took up the game that would become his passion – and his obsession.

As a teen (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), Bobby sharpened his skills, becoming the game’s youngest-ever grandmaster. He began participating in world-class tournaments, rising through the ranks on the global chess stage. But, as his standing as a world-ranked competitor grew, so, too, did his reputation for being outspoken, such as when he publicly called out the Soviets for underhanded, unfair, collusive practices during international matches, accusing them of manipulative tactics that essentially ensured continued Russian dominance of the game. He subsequently withdrew from competition, refusing to play under such conditions.

Despite these objections, however, Bobby couldn’t stay away from the chess board. So, when he was approached to resume competing by attorney Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who offered to serve as Fischer’s manager, Bobby agreed to come out of his self-imposed retirement. With the support of Marshall and coach Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby rejoined the world chess circuit, participating in tournaments aimed at grooming him for taking on the Russian greats, including world champion Boris Spassky.

To get Bobby back into the game, Marshall did virtually whatever it took to appease his client’s wishes, demands that grew progressively more numerous, insistent and capricious over time. But Marshall was willing to go along with these whims to see his goal realized, an objective with an agenda greater than just promoting the success of an aspiring chess champion. Marshall saw the geopolitical implications if Bobby were to prevail over the Soviets, along with the personal spoils that would come his way from furthering such a noble pursuit. And, as a somewhat shadowy figure believed to have highly placed U.S. government connections, he was able to pull the necessary strings to grant Bobby’s wishes.

Bobby’s success made him an overnight sensation, his popularity elevated to that of a rock star. His celebrity earned him numerous interview requests, including from such high-profile television programs as 60 Minutes and The Dick Cavett Show. Who would have thought a chess player would attain such acclaim?

However, as the stakes progressively grew, the pressure on Bobby began to mount, taking a severe toll on his mental state. Given the circumstances under which he was competing, he began to feel paranoid, seeing conspiracies at every turn. He believed a cabal of Communists (and, ironically enough, Jews) were out to get him. He became convinced that his opponents and their minions were engaged in clandestine activities to monitor his communications, poison his food, control his mind and blow up his plane. He even began to suspect that his closest advisors were part of the plot against him, with his sister (Lily Rabe) being the only person he felt he could trust. In short, Bobby thought he was being manipulated like one of the pieces on his chess board, and the pressure was pushing him toward a breakdown.

Still, despite these challenging circumstances, Fischer’s handlers successfully managed to convince him to compete in the world chess championship against Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. But, with so much turmoil transpiring behind the scenes, it was unclear what the outcome would be and whether the match would even come off. The world was riveted with the high-stakes drama playing out on the chess board while those closest to Bobby held their breath over whether he’d be able to hold it all together.

As anyone who has ever played chess realizes, it’s a game of probabilities, with a virtually limitless number of possible moves. In that sense, it’s not unlike the practice of conscious creation, the means by which we manifest our realities through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. According to that philosophy, at any given moment, we have access to an infinite range of options for creating the existence we experience, depending on the beliefs we hold, all of which are capable of taking us in myriad directions – just like the moves on a chess board.

Given the nature of the game, however, assessing the range of available options can easily become overwhelming – if not maddening – something that one might argue happened to Fischer (and, to a certain extent, Spassky as well). By continually playing out the options in one’s mind, it’s easy to see how someone could become so wrapped up in the innumerable possibilities that one’s focus might turn to preoccupation and eventually mental paralysis. Under such conditions, it’s unlikely we’d be able to get anything done, becoming perpetually locked in a state of psychological atrophy.

But one need not be preoccupied with chess moves to become mired in such a state of mind. While the ability to consider and assess multiple probabilities can certainly be beneficial in our conscious creation pursuits, the ability to make effective use of our power of discernment is just as important. Indeed, anyone who is unable to effectively discern which options to explore and/or implement in a particular endeavor runs the risk of becoming irretrievably stuck. That can become especially crucial if we begin to blur the lines between what’s “real” (i.e., what we have successfully managed to manifest) and what’s “imagined” (i.e., what we have been able to envision but have not fully brought into being). It’s at this point where paranoia and delusion can set in – and where others may begin to suspect we’ve lost it.

Considering Fischer’s highly focused mindset, it’s easy to see how such circumstances might have come to pass in his life. And, when those conditions were compounded by the considerable pressure placed on him (particularly the geopolitical concerns involved), it’s amazing he didn’t crack up at the time. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Fischer’s later years, when everything would come crashing down on him, wiping away all of his success and accomplishments. He became a sort of pariah, his incoherent ramblings leaving him isolated and destitute.

While it may be impossible to pinpoint the exact causes of Bobby’s downfall, the conditions associated with the global chess championship may have contributed significantly. Even though the tournament was billed as a showdown between Fischer and Spassky, its implications were much more far-reaching, pitting the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R., East versus West and Communism versus Capitalism – essentially a metaphorical global chess match with critical implications writ large. In that regard, the competition was, in fact, a mass event, not just a one-on-one contest, and the opposing forces’ proxy warriors were, in essence, not unlike the pawns on the field of play between them. Given that, despite the potential personal rewards at stake for each of the contestants, it’s easy to see how they might have come to feel like personified versions of the chess pieces they maneuvered around the board.

In light of the foregoing, then, is it any wonder that someone like Bobby might have come to feel unduly manipulated, that his interests were ultimately secondary to those with bigger (and possibly more nefarious and self-serving) agendas? Of course, the more stock he placed in such beliefs, the more they became reflected in the reality he believed he was experiencing. All of which helps to illustrate the power of thought – and what it can do to shape our perceived existence.

“Pawn Sacrifice” is an excellent period piece film that effectively captures the look and feel of the era, especially the seemingly omnipresent hype that was associated with this story at the time it was unfolding. Director Edward Zwick has produced a capable biopic, though at times it’s a little thin on back story, especially Fischer’s upbringing, how he became obsessed with the conspiracy theories that consumed him and how he came to know his inner circle of handlers. Nevertheless, despite this drawback, the picture features a knock-out, award-worthy performance by Maguire, as well as fine acting turns by Stuhlbarg and Schreiber. As one of the first entrants in this year’s awards season releases, this picture is an excellent offering, one that merits serious consideration by those involved in the nominating process.

Managing and disciplining our beliefs is essential to effective use of the conscious creation process. Without it, we can easily spiral out of control, losing a grip over our existence, even if it seems pregnant with possibilities. With our reality – and possibly our sanity – at stake, we need to temper our envisioning ability with practical common sense. It may be all well and good to have our heads in the clouds, but it won’t mean much if we can’t keep our feet on the ground.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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