Searching for Bobby Fischer, directed by Steven Zaillian, is a movie inspired by the life of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (played by Max Pomeranc). The story unfolds during the pre-teen years of Josh’s life; where he first develops a liking for the game. His father (played by Joe Mantegna) notices his son’s exceptional chess ability and hires a well respected instructor (played by Ben Kingsley) to further develop his son’s naturally given talent.
The title of this film includes the name of Bobby Fischer, arguably the most recognizable figure in chess history. The storyline romanticizes about Fischer by incorporating real footage of him during his teens and adult years in between scenes. Fischer was depicted as a once in a generational talent; someone who studiously prepared for tournaments, abhorred any distractions, and had a genuine addiction for the game. I really liked the analogy that the film attempted to draw between Bobby and Josh i.e. could Josh fill the shoes of the great Bobby Fischer, and what cost would this come at? By far the best part of this movie was how it answered this very question: what would it take for Josh to become the next Fischer? The film brilliantly explored the unhealthy obsession that some people had for the game; how they may spend years of their lives attempting to perfect their style of play, all while losing their relationships other interests, and their humanity. I am reminded of this famous quote from Paul Morphy, do you agree with it?
“The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman. But the ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life”.
The development of Josh’s character was influenced by his relationship with chess and the people close to him. At the start of the movie, he was genuinely curious about the game and actually enjoyed playing it. But the more time he spent training and participating in tournaments, his curiosity and enjoyment transformed into routine and repetition. His father and instructor also only obsessed about winning at any costs, and so drained Josh’s apt for sportsmanship & compassion. I won’t spoil what happens at the end of the movie, but I will say that everything does come to full circle; it was a “feel good ending”.
That being said, my praise for this film ends here. Many of my expectations relating to the characters and plot points just weren’t met. For one, I was disappointed by how underutilized Lawrence Fishburne’s character was. He plays this sort of “chess-hustler”, whose rapid and unpredictable play style contrasts with the calculated and patient style that Josh was taught by Ben Kingsley’s character. Josh and Vinnie (Fishburne’s character) forged a unique friendship that could’ve been explored in greater depth. Regarding plot points, more effort could’ve also been put into showing why Josh was considered a child chess prodigy. Was it because of his work ethic, positional play, foresight, or visualization of future in-game scenarios, or perhaps all of the above above? The film demonstrates Josh’s chess talent only through his achievements, not through the unique abilities that he possessed. The child who played Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) also did a pretty mediocre job. I’m not going to be too critical here, because let’s be real, he was maybe only seven years old when he took up this role. Still, I wasn’t particularly blown away by his performance; it was a satisfactory effort, yet very monotone.
I didn’t dislike the film as a whole, but in contrast to other cinema/TV shows about chess eg: Pawn Sacrifice & The Queens Gambit, this movie seemed elementary in comparison. There were aspects of the film that I liked; for example the inclusion of the Bobby Fischer clips & the discussion about the sacrifices that one has to make to truly become “great” at a sport. But changes could’ve been made to some of the characters and plot points.