(15) ★★★

Atomic Blonde

THE life and career of troubled chess legend Bobby Fischer has already been explored many times on film, most effectively and candidly in Liz Garbus’s 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World.

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Now director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) — working from a script by Steven Knight (Locke, TV’s Peaky Blinders) — has turned Fischer’s life into a stately, if rather unremarkable, film about an individual who was anything but.

It’s the height of the Cold War but there’s a battle of a whole different sort going on. Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) has grown up with a talent and stoic commitment to that most strategic of sports, climbing his way up the ranks and eventually finding himself as a pawn in a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

Maguire puts in an impressive performance as Fischer, capturing the simultaneous emotional vulnerability, self-righteous arrogance and penchant for paranoia that plagued the man’s personality, interpersonal relationships and even his gameplay, including complaining that televising cameras were too loud or that KGB were covertly surveilling him.

We see him readying himself to take on Russian champion Boris Spassky, convincingly played here by Liev Schreiber who masters the Russian tongue and steely-eyed brick wall persona that sits down across from Fischer in the world famous game that took place in Reykjavik in 1972 and was crudely publicized as a veritable Cold War confrontation.

It’s solidly done as a theatrical performance piece, particularly tense in its depiction of the World Chess Championship match itself as the two men, each formidable in their own ways, try to work and psych out each other via sly glances and sullen silences. Like with last year’s The Queen of Katwe, it shows chess can become a surprisingly riveting cinematic endeavour.

Where it’s less successful, however, is the window dressing around the actual playing of the game. In the scenes depicting his growing up and interactions with those closest to him exhibits some nice period detail and good performances from the likes of Peter Sarsgaard as a chess-loving priest and surrogate father and Robin Weigert as Fischer’s Communist sympathizer mother Regina whom he grows to hate.

But the plotting ultimately feels like it takes the safe road, lacking the necessary spark to lift things above the level of dramatic re-enactment. It never truly gets under the skin of either the complex politics that provides the story’s backdrop nor this brilliant, infuriating man who was driven as much by ego and paranoia as pure God-given skill. In the end it’s Maguire’s piercing, carefully observed performance that does all the heavy lifting.