erik lundegaard

Searching for Bobby Fischer
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Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Searching for Bobby Fischer” is a traditional three-act story of rise, fall and redemption. Its first act, like the first act of a superhero movie, contains the dawning realization of power: the chess prowess of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), who may be the next Bobby Fischer. In the second act, Josh acquires two teachers: Vinnie (Larry Fishburne), a speed-chess hustler at Washington Square Park in New York, who fascinates Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is aggressive, streetwise and American; and Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a national master at the Manhattan Chess Club, who is hired by Josh’s father, Fred (Joe Mategna), to teach Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is cautious, erudite and European. The two styles and teachers clash, of course, and a rival—seven-year-old Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg)—is discovered, and fear is introduced. That’s why the fall. It’s only when Josh intuitively combines the two chess styles in the third act that redemption is possible and final victory achieved.

I saw the movie when it was released in 1993 and liked it. I saw it recently, after Patricia and I watched Liz Garbus’ excellent HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and was disappointed. Immediately.

The film, based upon a true story, opens with kids playing hide-and-seek in Washington Square Park. We focus on the birthday boy, Josh, doe-eyed and big-shoed, who runs, hides under a bush, and finds a chess piece there, a knight, lying on the ground. He looks around. He sees men playing various games, vaguely trash talking. Then, reflected in the sunglasses of one of these men, he sees a chess board, and the soundtrack music rises triumphantly. That’s when my heart fell. The moment just doesn’t happen; the moment is crowned with music. In case we might miss it.

The movie keeps doing this. It keeps nudging us. It’s written and directed by Steven Zaillian, based upon Fred Waitzkin’s book, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zaillian or some studio hand kept bringing up “The Natural,” the Robert Redford film, as a model. The movie is similarly nostalgic, even though its time-frame is recent if unspecific; it’s similarly melodramatic, even though it’s about a real boy rather than a mythic creation. We keep getting magic-hour light, too. That’s probably why its only Oscar nomination was for cinematography. The Academy can’t get enough of magic-hour light.

So is the opening scene the first time Josh discovers chess? We don’t know. When does he become friends with Vinnie? We don’t know. When does his mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen), no longer fear the Washington Square hustlers, as she does initially, but actually prefer them to the uptight and unlikable Bruce Pandolfini? We don’t know.

We don’t get any of that. Instead we get adult reactions and arguments about what to do with Josh. Should he focus completely on chess? Should he focus on it at all? Is Vinnie’s aggressive brand of speed chess ruining Josh’s game, as Bruce contends?

In the middle of a school conference, Josh’s grade-school teacher (Laura Linney) suggests—with everyone, including Josh, within earshot—that Josh needs to think about more than chess. She suggests he’s becoming isolated. Is he? We never really see him in his day-to-day so we don’t know. But we do know that Fred makes sense when he tells her (again, in front of everybody) the following:

He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.

Good lines. The question is what do you do with it? How do you bring out the gift? The movie ultimately favors a “Let Josh be Josh” strategy. Josh’s second-act fall occurs not only because he fears his new rival but because the game stops being fun for him. Vinnie is fun; Bruce is not. Vinnie hangs outside; Bruce is almost always seen in airless rooms. Vinnie is cool, relaxed, wears weightlifting gloves for no discernible reason; Bruce is erect, tight-lipped, and encourages a contempt for the world, and for Josh’s opponents, that is the opposite of Josh’s natural decency.

So Josh begins to lose. On purpose. Because it’s all too much.

How does Josh revive in the third act? Again: who knows? His father brings his trophies into his room (“These belong to you”), which is a kind of metaphoric gesture (I.e., your talents belong to you, not to me or any other adult). Then he takes him back to Washington Square Park for a game with Vinnie. Then suddenly we’re in Chicago for the nationals, both teachers in tow, where Josh wins by utilizing both teachers’ strategies and by being himself. He offers his rival a draw, for example, before he beats him. In the midst of cutthroat competition, he remains decent.

I actually believe this to be a true lesson: To achieve true success, one has to be as authentically oneself as possible.

I also believe this to be a false lesson. The film implies that to succeed at the highest levels one need not sacrifice anything. Before the tournament, unlike the other poor kids chained to their chessboards, Josh goes on a two-week fishing trip with his father. At the end of the movie, we’re told that Josh, the real Josh, is currently the highest-ranked player in the U.S. under 18. “He also plays baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and in the summer goes fishing,” we’re told.

Sacrifice schmacrifice.

I wanted to like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” again, but it’s too sweet, too false by half. It forces structure onto a real story and wrecks it. I don’t know if the real Josh Waitzkin went through a rise/fall/redemption cycle but we do know that the real Bruce Pandolfini was Brooklyn-born, easy-going, and popular with his students. Unfortunately a film needs conflict and drama, and Kingsley’s Pandolfini is the route they chose. Shame. It’s sad when a movie is based upon a true story and you walk away thinking, “I didn’t buy it.”

—November 12, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard