Years of playing Spider-Man seems to have done something to Tobey Maguire that we may have overlooked all along, or not thought about. Either he was quietly developing his acting skills beneath Spidey’s mask or that he is very eager to prove that he knows more than just to swing from buildings and kiss upside down.
Tobey then takes to Pawn Sacrifice with a vengeance. As the madcap, mercurial, maverick mid-70s US chess GM, Bobby Fischer, he fills up a good deal of the movie. (The movie is about him, after all.) But not content with getting a meaty role, he goes about actually trying to fill up the screen. There are sequences and sequences that feature only him and his slow but steady descent with paranoia. And when that isn’t enough, you get scenes and scenes of his eyes moving from one side of the socket and screen to the either, as a display of his increasing suspiciousness.
But forgive these, and you spot enough instances of Tobey possibly receiving a nod for a nomination. He gets into the character like the GM into his game (or does he ever leave it?), ostensibly living it as much as Bobby lived chess. He allows you to get very close to the character too. He conveys his growing loneliness, detachment, and annoyance with the world very well – to the point of you beginning to lose your patience with him, much like many of the folk around him, who possibly tolerated the genius only for his genius on the square board.
But that’s the limit to which Tobey, or maybe, the screenplay goes. It shows you his journey, and allows you at most to be a bystander, but doesn’t allow you to get into it and be a passenger with him. Unlike a similar movie earlier this year, also about a beleaguered genius and in similar territory of war, The Imitation Game, about the WW1 Germany-codebreaker and computer inventor, Alan Turing. In that ‘game’, you cheered for him (while he’s inventing the machine, and taking his time doing so, in the eyes of others) as well as felt his pain about his gayness, both as a boy and as an adult. There, you feel the film. Here, you merely view it.
Pawn Sacrifice though doesn’t suffer only on these counts. In trying to make its protagonist the hero, or king, of the piece, it reduces the supporting cast – all of them – to mere pawns. Be it his team of Priest and Paul (the one starts strong but slowly lets his light and presence fade in the shadow of the genius; the other begins commandingly – “I have been the agent to the Rolling Stones” – but next scene on, becomes softer than a marshmallow); the few odd women in his life (Mom leaves early on and resurfaces only as a faded figure toward the end; Sister makes weepy appearances, and ok, one cheering one; Hooker’s make-up and clothes have more to do than she); and the most incorrigible, his adversary, Boris Spassky. Boris is reduced to a wussy caricature, and if ever Liev Schreiber, who plays him, wanted a role to come out of his perennial fringe-line presence in Hollywood, he chose the wrong one. He is shown as a man of few words, and those words are all Russian, and someone who fails to even offer resistance, cinematically, to the emerging genius of Fischer.
And then, when the end credits roll, you understand why. Why all the pieces are stacked in Tobey’s favour. He’s produced the movie, damnit. Check and mate, viewer.