The showdowns on the chessboard in Pawn Sacrifice (2015) reflect more than a contest between individuals. Beneath the surface of the one-on-one game, a highly-charged battle for supremacy rages between global superpowers the United States and Russia during the height of the Cold War. As the story's focus narrows on the ongoing rivalry between Brooklyn-born chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian chess master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the narrative is driven by the psychological warfare surrounding the chess matches between the players’ respective governments, who are using Fischer and Spassky — the film’s title implies — as “pawns.”
In the film’s behind-the-scenes featurette, director Edward Zwick describes the pressure-laden context in which the players find themselves. Zwick explains, “You have Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon calling Bobby Fischer; you have Brezhnev and the KGB agents following Boris Spassky. Both of these men were pawns of their nations.”
In viewing chess as the pretext for this global drama, wherein the personal motivations of Fischer and Spassky are subjugated to the iron wills of their nations, the film infuses the chess event with external tensions originating outside of (and unrelated to) the game.
Fischer's lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbar), who is apparently working for the US government in some vague way, describes the Fischer-Spassky showdown as “World War III on a chessboard,” adding, “We lost China. We're losing Vietnam. We have to win this one.”
Paul also remarks that the nations, and the players representing them, are engaged in a “war of perception,” pitting “the poor kid from Brooklyn against the whole Soviet empire.”
The film builds our sympathy for Fischer (who also resists our sympathy in certain ways) by portraying the US government as caring only about the player's performance for political purposes and disregarding his deteriorating mental wellness. Yet the filmmakers seem to choose Fischer as the story's hero because he is too intractable to accept being fully turned into a pawn. As much as he is pushed and manipulated by agents of his government, Fischer is depicted as an individual who can’t be controlled. “For a brief moment Bobby Fischer was the most famous person in the world,” Zwick says. “He was in some way the first punk hero. He was arrogant… he didn’t really give a damn what other people thought. He was able to carry it off because he was so great.”
It is this all-American cocky individualism with a Brooklyn edge that American audiences will relate to and cheer for (not to say that the film doesn’t also sympathize with likeable Spassky, who is just as put-upon by his own government). The film encourages the audience to champion the fight of the individual against the machinations of the shadowy government seeking to control him.
But Pawn Sacrifice should not leave us with any misguided notion that the individual wins this battle in the long run. Despite his fiery genius and the high note of the film's ending following the 1972 victory, ultimately (as the film notes in an unwieldy postscript) the real Bobby Fischer was in many ways a victim of his circumstances. Throughout the rest of his life, his mental illness continued to accelerate, fed by the collective paranoia of the Cold War period in which he played on the global stage.