Pawn Sacrifice
Christian Movie Review

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)“Pawn Sacrifice” tells the true story of chess genius Bobby Fischer who became an international celebrity when he played and defeated the great Soviet chess masters during the height of the Cold War.

Although gritty and realistic in its depiction of Bobby’s demons and troubled childhood, which is why it’s rated PG-13, the film is brilliant and powerful in the way it brings Bobby’s tragic but one-of-a-kind true story to life.

Parental Guidance Content at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film

Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance:  A woman tells Bobby, after just meeting him, that she wants to have sex with him. He agrees and says he wants to “lose his virginity” with her at some point. Later in the film they’re seen lying in the bed without clothes on (though no nudity). In an early scene, a teenager becomes angry when he hears his single mother laughing in her bedroom with another man, and the boy yells at her and accuses of her of “screwing” the man.

Violence/Gore/Scary Content: None.

Language: One f-word. A scattering of other swear words throughout the film.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters drink various kinds of alcohol and smoke at various points throughout the film.

(Review continues below)

Entertainment Value and Film Craft

The film is masterfully made. It presents in vivid detail two kinds of tension, and then with perfect pacing and precision it ratchets up these two forces of tension on-screen until every moviegoer is leaning forward, holding their breath. These two forces of tension are 1) the psychological/emotional problems of Bobby; and 2) the ever-increasing conflict between the USA and the USSR chess masters, and this works as a mirror reflection of the geopolitical turmoil at the time.

The film was cast perfectly in every role, and Tobey Maguire excels as the relentlessly angry, pompous, brilliant, paranoid, and strangely sympathetic Bobby Fischer. I loved the writing. They did an especially good job of very carefully showing in the subtext Bobby’s true feelings about his mother despite his anger and the estrangement. In the category of film craft, “Pawn Sacrifice” is one of the best movies of the year.

Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Social Commentary, the Question of “Spiritual Edification,” Etc.

Bobby Fischer, if this film is telling the true, was an extremely angry person. He also had some complex psychological problems. This means that, if the film is doing its job, many of the scenes will depict darkness. And we certainly see plenty of relationship dysfunction and psychological darkness on-screen. But the film never glorifies it. Instead, it gives us a deeper sense of Bobby’s fragility and brokenness that weaves itself into his genius. His level of skill at chess has made him known as one of the greatest geniuses to have ever come out of America — someone on par with Mozart or Einstein. He possessed a truly rare genius.

But he also possessed a very troubled heart.

Bobby Fischer grew up without a father, and he eventually blames his mother for that. As a young teenager the film depicts him expressing unbridled hatred toward her. At one point he screams at her to “get the [bleep] out” of the home they share. She does move out after that, and, as far as the film tells us, he lives the rest of his life in some state of estrangement from his mother. This is deeply tragic, and Bobby’s disconnect from his parents and his anguish over it is never depicted on the surface of his actions. The film weaves that anguish into the little moments. Deep down Bobby wishes more than anything that his mom would show up to one of his chess competitions, it seems. And this makes his constant outbursts of rage and arrogance even more heartbreaking.

In the midst of all his psychological turmoil, we also see his self-centered character on full display. He treats a woman who wants to have sex with him as a consumer good. He treats the people who are tirelessly helping him like idiotic slaves, and he rarely expresses gratitude to them. This film, unfortunately, doesn’t tell some glorious redemption story with the classic arc of a character overcoming their internal flaw to save the day and come out as a better person. Instead the film gives us a heartbreaking but absolutely intriguing portrait of one of the great geniuses of our modern age.

In the background the film also gives us a telling geopolitical story and draws a very clear parallel: the Cold War was a global chess game, and even while Bobby was playing the greatest chess in modern history, the USA and the USSR were playing chess as well. We see both chess players, Bobby Fischer and the Soviet chess player Boris Spassky, being used by their governments and pushed to compete whether or not it benefited or damaged their psyches. In the end, both chess rivals, Fischer and Spassky were pawns in a larger game.

In the midst of all this we have brilliant performances, and one in particular from Peter Sarsgaard was refreshing. He played a priest who accompanies and assists Bobby in the tournaments. The film depicts this Christian character in a positive light: the priest’s constant calm under pressure and patience with Bobby works as a striking contrast to Bobby’s stormy temperament.

Conclusion: A Brilliant, Fascinating Film — But Also a Dark, Gritty One

Although the film does present plenty of dark material (and it’s clearly not a family movie), it never glorifies the darkness and it has very specific purposes for it: to reveal the character of Bobby Fischer to us and see how and why his path develops the way it does.

My rating for “Pawn Sacrifice”: [usr 8] (See my notes below on the rating scale.)

[NOTE: If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis or U2, please be sure to read our editor Kevin’s new blog Stabs of Joy, which explores 18 C.S. Lewis books and 13 U2 albums to answer one question: how do we really experience Christ’s joy — and not just talk about it — during seasons of sorrow and difficulty?]


Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:

1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes

2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes

4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).

7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).

10 stars = one
of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).

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