Bobby Fischer was, by most accounts, the greatest chess player in history. He spawned generations of interest in the game, and in 1972 beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War. Then he disappeared from public life.
Hidden Gems: Searching for Bobby Fischer
By Kyle Lee
November 21, 2016
1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie of surprising depth and nuance. It’s the story of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin, whom we follow as he climbs the ranks of the best child chess players in the country. And it’s the story of all the conflicting parental guidance he receives both from his parents, and his two chess teachers. The movie is a wonderful exploration of many varied themes, from the pressures of being a prodigy, parenting, the balance of pushing yourself while still maintaining a love of the game, sportsmanship, the nature of chess, and much more. It is a wonderfully layered movie that also doesn’t require any prior knowledge of chess to understand or enjoy. It is probably one of my most watched movies, and one that would be in my top 10 movies of the 1990s.
Josh (Max Pomeranc), is just your regular seven-year-old kid growing up in New York City. When playing in Washington Square Park on his birthday, he sees groups of men playing all manner of games, and the chess players really grab his attention. He later asks his mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) if they can go watch the men in the park. Bonnie takes Josh and his younger sister and while nervously standing around, Josh watches as Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) plays a game of chess while unleashing a constant stream of trash talk to his opponent, who ends up being a chess grandmaster come to hustle the hustlers in the park. Josh watches the board as the men play, and you can see that he just has an innate understanding of the game. Later, when Bonnie brings Josh back to the park to challenge a man to a game, Vinnie watches studiously as even though Josh loses, he uses his pieces in a very advanced way. Vinnie says he’ll be telling people in the future that he used to watch Josh play chess in the park just like people say they used to watch Bobby Fischer in the park.
Josh’s newfound love and understanding of chess comes as a surprise to his father Fred (a never better Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter. He and Josh bond over baseball, but Josh is now becoming obsessed with chess. So Fred gets him a teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). And this is when the movie really takes off. Josh becomes the most feared young chess player around, winning many tournaments around the country. Bruce teaches Josh strategy, history, and to stop taking his queen out so early. Vinnie, on the other hand, tries to teach Josh to play from his instinct instead of his brain. Vinnie says to Josh, of Bruce, “He didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose, that’s nothing to be proud of.” Meanwhile, Fred takes so much pride in Josh’s success that he starts pushing him too hard, expecting nothing less than first place every time. Josh starts seeing his dad’s love tied to winning. Bonnie sees her son’s good heart, his fairness and decency, and is intent on protecting Josh from the dark side of sports that teaches you to hate your opponent, and to win at all cost.
Each character in the movie is given weight, depth, and motivation. Rarely do we see movies this well written. It was written by Steve Zaillian, who also made his directorial debut. Zaillian’s other 1993 screenplay, Schindler’s List, won him an Oscar. He would later go on to write movies like Mission: Impossible, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, and others, but to me his masterpiece is Searching for Bobby Fischer. It was adapted from the real Fred Waitzkin’s book of the same name. Now, although it was based on a non-fiction book and features many real acclaimed chess players, that is not what makes it good. The most true to life “based on a true story” movie is still a fiction film. I don’t care if things didn’t happen in real life the way they happen in the movie, this is not a documentary and doesn’t claim to be. It’s a great movie and that’s what matters.
The exploration of prodigy here is fascinating. Fred is not alone amongst the overbearing, brash parents pushing their children. And we see the dark side of lives devoted strictly to one discipline. We see some of the great players in the world, ones that play hundreds of tournaments, who we’re told make only about $2,000 a year. So when Bruce and Josh meet a young rival whose teacher brags about how the child does nothing but play chess, no school, no family, only chess, they’re horrified. When Fred puts Josh into a private school, one that even has chess classes, Josh’s question is whether there are good things in the play yard to climb on. He’s seven. No matter what is projected on him due to his gift for chess, Josh is seven and still has the innocence and decency of a child. This is what Bonnie is so hawkish to protect. She cares only for her son’s happiness and protection of his inner self.
The acting ensemble is flawless here. Joe Mantegna is an underappreciated and underutilized actor, and this is his crowning achievement. He loves his son, he wants him to succeed, and he also sees that Josh, at seven, is better at chess than Fred has ever been at anything. Joan Allen’s Bonnie is full of love and acceptance and warmth. Laurence Fishburne, as Vinnie, is a little dangerous and unpredictable, but obviously cares for Josh and wants him to be happy too. Ben Kingsley makes for an intimidating teacher for young Josh, and we can see the bitterness in this man who was once a prodigy himself. And maybe Josh’s good-heartedness can teach Bruce as much as Bruce’s expertise can teach Josh. Young Max Pomeranc gives what is likely my favorite performance from a child actor. He was chosen because he was a top chess player himself, and the filmmakers wanted to have the chess look real. But his sensitivity, intelligence, and inner strength make Josh one of the most fascinating characters in film, to me. The rest of the cast is littered with great character actors like Tony Shalhoub, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Dan Hedaya, and more.
I would like to also point out the look of the movie. Shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (director of photography on movies like Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition), the movie’s lone Oscar nomination came for the cinematography. It is beautiful to look at, but not distractingly so. There is nothing show-offy about the photography here, but it should be a lesson to students of film in how to gorgeously make a movie that is mostly realistic interiors.
Overall, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a fascinating look at parental love, the conflicting voices and advice we let into our lives, and the effect (both positive and negative) of the competitive nature of sports. It’s a great movie, one that doesn’t get talked about enough, a true Hidden Gem.