8. Searching for Bobby Fischer
This movie was a mild hit. I know people who count it as one of their favorite films. I am one of them. None of the actors were nominated for Oscars – which I find rather odd – Ben Kingsley, Larry Fishburne, Joe Montegna – all give top-notch performances – not just top-notch compared to their peers, but top-notch compared to all the rest of the work they have done. I know Ben Kingsley (excuse me: SIR Ben Kingsley) has been highly decorated, and he’s nominated pretty much every time he acts. His work in Schindler’s List is one of those raise-the-bar performances for actors everywhere. But his work as Bruce Pandolfini, the intense all-work-no-play chess coach, in Bobby Fischer is one of my personal favorites in all of his performances. It’s not just good – it gets me right in the throat.
I am not objective about this film. I just flat out love it. Why do I love it? Because the scenes that work – work every time I see them – and I see this movie, on average, once a month. Larry Fishburne, too … a guy whose career is so long that it’s hard to even judge it yet – he’s still a relatively young man – and in my opinion his Ike Turner was a tour de force – Angela Basset was good – but Larry Fishburne was frighteningly GREAT. However – his performance here as Vinnie – the homeless guy who sits in Washington Square Park playing chess – who befriends this little chess-playing prodigy – and teaches him the renegade style of the street, as opposed to the classical strategy – is just a masterpiece. Oscars do not measure the worth of a performance, obviously. Fishburne wasn’t even nominated in 1993. But he is AWESOME. He has some moments which give me goosebumps every time I see the film. I sit there watching the movie and I look forward to seeing those moments again, even though it will be the 20th time.
Steven Zaillian, the director, made a conscious choice when he cast the film to find kids who actually could play chess. He wanted chess players FIRST – and hopefully he could find a kid who loved chess, who knew the game – and who also could handle the demands of the script. Max Pomeranc, the kid he chose as the lead, is kind of extraordinary. You forget you are not watching a real kid. He seems like a real little boy. His face is expressive, open – and yet strangely inscrutable when he plays chess. Which is PERFECT. He’s not cute or precocious – like so many other little kid actors that make you want to vomit. The success of that one bit of casting MAKES the movie. It launches it out of maudlin “ooh look at the cute little kid” land into “wow, look at what this family has to go through …” It’s about the STORY. Little kids so often detract from the story because they are not good enough actors. This little kid is never anything less than totally believable.
Watch his scenes with Ben Kingsley. The chess-coaching scenes. Those are TOUGH scenes. And he has to act with Ben Kingsley! But those are two-way scenes, make no mistake about it. Ben Kingsley is marvelous with the kid – and the kid is marvelous up against the great Sir Ben. The scenes are filled with tension, silence, battle of the wills … I love when the kid is struggling to figure out his next move, staring at the pieces. Ben realizes that he is trying to figure it out intellectually – and so he reaches out and knocks all of the chess pieces off the board onto the floor. It’s an electric moment – it comes as a complete surprise. You can see the little kid’s eyes bug out – he looks up at Ben Kingsley like: “Are you insane??” But Kingsley’s point is: You have to know the board so well that you can feel the next move that has to come … there is an inevitability to chess (at least when the great masters of it play) – so even without the pieces on the board you should be able to strategize, move, “see” where you need to go.
Joe Mantegna is great as the father who at first kind of scoffs his kids’ talent … and slowly becomes so wrapped up in it that it is his OWN ego that is being gratified. HE’s the one with the son who’s a genius. He becomes arrogant, tough, harder on his kid … He has a journey to go through as well.
All of these characters are beautifully drawn, and perfectly played.
And the story itself … I don’t care if it’s a formula. What – you think there are a gazillion different stories to tell? There aren’t. There are maybe 10 stories – told over and over and over – in different ways. Formulas can WORK if they are imbued with life, humanity, surprise.
This film is one of my favorite films ever made. It just works.
— the first chess game Mantegna plays with his kid, when he thinks that he will EASILY beat his kid. The kid doesn’t want to show his father up, so he lets his dad win. The mother (an underused Joan Allen) murmurs to her husband, “He just let you win. Play again.” They play again. The game spans an entire afternoon – mainly because Mantegna quickly realizes that his son is WAY out of his league. The filming of each move of this chess game is masterfully done – it’s funny, subtle – you get the sense of the passing of time – the kid is on the phone, he’s in his room, he’s now taking a bath – all while the father is agonizing over his next move. The kid runs downstairs when it’s his turn, quickly looks at the board, moves his next piece, and runs out of the room again, back to his phone call. It’s hilarious. The ending of that scene GIVES ME GOOSEBUMPS EVERY TIME. Kid runs downstairs – takes a look – moves the chess pieces – runs back upstairs. Calls downstairs, “Dad – can we go to the zoo now??” Father calls back up: “The game’s not over yet!” Kid calls back casually, “Yes it is!” Father chuckles, and calls back, “No, it’s not!” Kid is bouncing his ball against the wall, calls back: “Yes, it is!” Suddenly, Mantegna looks at the board closer … and with a great zooming in of the lens – you can see by the chess pieces – that he is trapped. Or – he WILL be trapped in another 4 or 5 moves. It is over. There is no way out. GREAT scene. Way better than I just described it.
— the first meeting between Fishburne and the kid in the park. With the chess piece, the baseball, the rain pouring down. Goosebumps.
— the intensity of Joe Mantegna’s face, the intensity of his voice when he says to the bitchy teacher (played by Laura Linney) who has said to him, “I think Josh might be spending too much time on this chess thing …” Cut back to Mantegna – and you can just feel the emotion rising – it’s scary – “Chess thing? Excuse me? Chess thing?” And then – voom – the veil draws back, and out comes the full emotional power of this actor: “He’s better at this … than I’ve ever been at anything in my life… He’s better at this … than you’ll ever be, at anything.” DAMN it is a powerful moment. I have a lump in my throat just typing this out. THAT is a good actor. Who – when the moment comes when he has to show up – in all his power, and emotion, and talent – shows up. That moment is a perfect example of what it means to just show up. That’s why it works. It’s not an “acted” moment. It’s an experienced moment. Mantegna reaches out of the screen there – it’s fantastic.
— the final chess match in Chicago – with Fishburne and Kingsley both watching on the monitors from outside the room – and both of them yelling (or muttering) instructions at their kid (who can’t hear them) … Of course their instructions are completely contradictory – but that’s the whole point. That’s the beauty of this film. It’s a poem of praise to the game of chess itself … you can feel the love in every frame.
Can you tell I love this movie?
No objectivity. It’s a gem.