Pawn Sacrifice l reviewed by Miles David Moore Scene4 Magazine November 2015

Miles David Moore

Two recent movies, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass and Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, are stories about recent historical characters who, despite their extreme differences, shared the fact that they were both virulently paranoiac.  Neither was pleasant company in real life, and neither film attempts to make them more amiable than they actually were.  But one of them has a vastly greater claim on our sympathy.

Black Mass, with a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on a book by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill, purports to be the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, kingpin of the Boston mob in the 1970s and ‘80s and one of the most terrifying figures in the history of American crime. Whoever played Bulger in this film had his work cut out for him.  Two of America’s greatest actors have famously played characters based on Bulger: Sean Penn in Mystic River and Jack Nicholson in The Departed.  The casting of Johnny Depp in Black Mass was good news for fans of Depp who wanted to see him in a real, meaty role again, instead of another Tim Burton or Disney Studios cartoon character.  Depp does not disappoint; he gives us an intense, fully believable portrait of a cunning, bloodthirsty monster.  It isn’t his fault that the movie itself is disappointing


Black Mass tells the parallel story of Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a friend of Bulger’s from the old neighborhood. In the mid-1970s, Connolly pitches the idea to his boss (Kevin Bacon) that Bulger would be infinitely more useful to the FBI on the street as an informant than behind bars as a trophy. After Bulger’s information helps the bureau arrest and convict another Boston mobster, Connolly’s advice becomes accepted wisdom, despite the caveats of some of his fellow agents.


Unfortunately, this means that Bulger becomes untouchable.  The FBI and the Boston police stand by helplessly as Bulger commits ever more heinous acts of criminality and murder.  Further protected by his brother, smooth-talking state senator Bill Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bulger accepts his privileged status as his due.  Like a Boston Irish Stalin, he inflicts bloody retribution on anyone who might conceivably threaten him.  Eventually he begins seeing conspiracies everywhere, including among the federal agents who protect him.  One of the most chilling moments in Black Mass comes over a companionable dinner between Bulger, Connolly and Connolly’s partner John Morris (David Harbour).  Bulger asks Morris for the secret of a steak marinade; Morris reveals it. Bulger suddenly turns on Morris: If you’re so free in telling your own secrets, he says, how can I trust you with mine?  It’s a moment to compare with the “Why am I funny?” sequence in Goodfellas.


Unfortunately, Black Mass is inferior to Goodfellas in most other ways.  The acting is uniformly excellent, and there is some appealing dark humor in the movie’s early scenes, such as when Bulger tells his small son—to the horror of the boy’s mother—that it’s OK to beat up other kids in the schoolyard . However, after a tragedy that is a major turning point in the film, the story of Black Mass flattens out into a Stygian nightmare of Bulger committing atrocity after atrocity.  Depp is appropriately chilling, but neither Cooper nor the screenwriters come anywhere close to letting us know what makes Bulger tick.

We feel just as distant from Connolly, and this is truly the movie’s fatal flaw.  The story of Black Mass is told through the testimony of several of Bulger’s henchmen, offering testimony to the FBI in search of a plea bargain.  They tell us that Bulger and Connolly have a long-standing bond, but we never see it—just a few dimly lit scenes of the two men muttering to each other and staring at the Charles River.  Joel Edgerton has shown himself, in a succession of movies, to be an outstanding actor.  But although he is brilliant at showing Connolly’s increasing desperation, the screenplay does not give him an opportunity to demonstrate why Connolly is so doggedly, suicidally loyal to Whitey Bulger.  The old saying holds true: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.

Conversely, everything is up front and center in Pawn Sacrifice, a movie about a man who was loyal to nothing except his chessboard.  As presented in the screenplay by Steven Knight, Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) is every bit the man we remember from his chess matches and his later brushes with the law: abrasive, solipsistic, contrary, given to paranoid rants about everyone and everything but especially the Jews, although he himself was Jewish.


According to Zwick and Knight, Fischer never wanted anything in his life except chess, and essentially that is what he got, pushing away his mother Regina (Robin Weigert) and sister Joan (Lily Rabe) in the process.  The first scene of Pawn Sacrifice shows a scene from Bobby’s childhood in which Regina, a free-living political radical, is being harassed by FBI agents.  The thesis of Pawn Sacrifice is that Fischer was a true pawn in the Cold War politics of his time, and his arrogance and paranoia made him all the more susceptible to being used.

Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), the lawyer who backs Fischer’s efforts to schedule a tournament against world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), sees the matchup as a potential blow for America. “The poor kid from Brooklyn against the whole Soviet empire,” Marshall tells Fischer when they first meet.  “The perfect American story.”


In any case, Fischer needs little encouragement, from Marshall or anyone else, to take the matches with Spassky with a seriousness bordering on hysteria.  In their first tournament in Los Angeles, Fischer is enraged that the underfunded U.S. chess program can only afford to put him up at a rundown motel while Spassky and his entourage are lodged at the Beverly Hills Hotel . This motivates Fischer to spend the night on the beach, still in his suit and tie, and deliver a crazed tirade to Spassky when the latter takes a morning swim.  “I’M COMING TO GET YOU!” he bellows.

The only person who can keep Fischer even slightly focused is Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), his coach for the matches with Spassky.  Although Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t spend any time considering Father Lombardy’s religion, he possesses an inner peace that is foreign to Fischer.  Lombardy knows the craziness that haunts the preponderance of chess geniuses, and elects himself Fischer’s protector.  One of the most fascinating scenes in the film shows Lombardy telling Marshall about Paul Morphy, a 19th-century chess wunderkind who made Fischer look like a model of sanity.  Lombardy’s message is clear: Bobby Fischer won’t end up becoming another Paul Morphy—not on his watch. 


Pawn Sacrifice moves from the disastrous initial Los Angeles matches between Fischer and Spassky to the legendary showdown in Reykjavik, which became an obsession even with people who couldn’t tell a pawn from a rook. The whole world watched that chessboard, and Fischer responded by making ever more outrageous demands, eventually having the match moved from an auditorium to a recreation room and banishing the audience altogether.  Here Zwick and Knight wisely concentrate less on the game and more on the men playing it. Schreiber gives a smart, impeccably timed performance as Spassky, who radiates a steady, eerie calm—until he doesn’t. The subject and timing of Spassky’s meltdown have to be seen to be believed.

In the end, Zwick can’t avoid having Pawn Sacrifice turn somewhat claustrophobic. But Maguire, whose passivity was a problem in earlier roles, portrays Fischer’s raging egomania very effectively. The other actors also are fine, with Sarsgaard and Schreiber the standouts. 

Pawn Sacrifice makes an interesting contrast with Miracle, Gavin O’Connor’s 2004 movie about another famous Cold War match—the hockey rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics.  Kurt Russell’s Herb Brooks was just as obsessive, hot-tempered and anhedonic as Maguire’s Fischer.  But Brooks was also much tougher and clear-headed than Fischer; he knew precisely what was at stake in the match with the Soviets, both professionally and politically.  Above all—and this was his biggest difference with Fischer—Brooks knew what it was to be a team player.

At the end of Miracle, after Brooks’ team has defeated the Soviets, Brooks knows the bittersweet feeling of having achieved the dream of a lifetime and not knowing what to do from there.  I won’t describe the difference between Brooks at the end of Miracle and Fischer at the end of Pawn Sacrifice, but it demonstrates with scalding clarity why Fischer was such a pitiful figure in the end, and why his shoulders were too frail for the burden of his nation’s hopes and dreams.

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Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore

Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and the Film Critic for Scene4. Read his Blog
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