Under-Rated Movies: #8 Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993); Dir. Steven Zaillian

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.

Favorite moments:

— 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.

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15 Responses to Under-Rated Movies: #8 Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993); Dir. Steven Zaillian

  1. Allison says:

    we’ve talked about this film, haven’t we? it is one of my all time favorites….favorites of all time. i had goose bumps the entire time i read your post…you hit some of my favorite moments. i also love the moments between joan and joe, when she calls him on his obsession with his son’s talent that has come to eclipse his role as father. she is also so wonderful in this film. we shoud watch it together sometime.

  2. red says:

    allison – I can’t remember if we’ve talked about it!! I am not surprised that you love it – not at all. It’s just sooo good. Definitely let’s see it together.

    Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

  3. Just1Beth says:

    Yes, we’ve blog talked about it. Cause I have shared how much Tom loves this movie, too. He owns it. Hmm… I must dig it out and watch it again. Great, great movie. Good choice, Sheil.

  4. amelie says:

    the most horrible thing i can say right now, is something i have to say: i’ve only seen the last half or 2 thirds of this movie. never all the way through.

    despite that, i LOVED it. just feckin’ LOVED it. need to get this, and actually see it all, don’t i.

  5. Betsy says:

    I had the same experience with this movie as with The Shawshank Redemption – I saw it way after it came out in theatres and was simply blown away. Great post! (Tom – can I borrow your copy to re-watch?)

  6. DBW says:

    I have this weird thing I do. Well, one of many weird things I do. There are certain movies that I know I will probably like that I don’t see for one reason or another, and when I realize I haven’t seen them after several years, I choose not to see them on purpose until the right moment presents itself. I hold them back as a kind of future gift to myself. Don’t know if that made any sense. An example: I didn’t see The Graduate until about 5 years ago. Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of those movies. I know I will probably like it, but time passed after it was released, and then it went into that strange category of mine–“FUTURE PLEASURES.” So, I couldn’t even read your post, although I am sure I would have enjoyed it. One of these days, when I see this movie, I will come back and search your site for this post–when the time is right.

  7. DBW says:

    BTW, sometimes this backfires. I didn’t like The Graduate nearly as much as I thought I would–and most likely not as much as I would have had I seen it way back when.

  8. DBW says:

    One more thing–YES, my poor wife suffers. When you marry a sometimes-inspired lunatic, sometimes you forget he is indeed a lunatic. The conversation goes something like this–“Oh, let’s watch Searching for Bobby Fischer!” “No, I’m not ready to see that yet.” “What do you mean ‘yet’?” “It’s in my Future Pleasures File.” “……..My Mom was right.” Only the real conversation lasts about 15 minutes. I make up for it with moments of sheer brilliance. At least, that’s what I tell her.

  9. chuck in maine says:

    I could not agree with you more about this movie Sheila. What a fantastic film! Another moment I love is at the very end of the movie when the boy and his friend are walking after the chess match. The boy puts his arm around his friend (whom had lost and was completely descimated by his parents), and simply says something close to, “Don’t worry, you are much better than I was at you age.” That moment captures the essence of the movie for me…that being that these are only kids and they know a hell of a lot more than adults sometimes, because they act and think with a clear and innocent mind.

  10. red says:

    DBW – I kind of love you. just so you know. :)

  11. red says:

    chuck – hahahahaha Yes!! That is such a cute moment. He’s, what, 9 years old? And he speaks like a little old man, like “when I was your age” …

  12. Cameron says:

    Objectivity tends to suck the joy out of life. Keep on bein’ all subjective, ma’am.

  13. JFH says:

    Tell me the casting director (is “director” the right term?) doesn’t deserve an Oscar:

    You’ve got Mantegna, Joan Allen, Kingsley and Fishburne! Plus one the most underrated character actors, David Paymer, along with some great child actors (especially the kid who plays the aloof prodigy, sorry don’t know his name). I think William H. Macy and Tony Schalub were bit players too… A great movie and a great choice; it’s one of my “can’t turn the channel, once I see it during surfing; despite the fact that I own the DVD” movies” (which in itself is an inexplicable psychiatric disorder).

    Unlike DWB (or maybe eerily similar), I had no desire to see this movie, but felt I “had” to see it to keep up with other movie geeks. But was blown away once I did see it.

  14. red says:

    JFH – omigod, i forgot – Yes, Tony Shalhoub has a GREAT cameo with NO LINES. Or maybe he has one line: “Sure” … but he is SO GREAT!!!!!

  15. Nightfly says:

    JFH – the “kid” in question is now in his early 20’s, an international master (that’s one step below grandmaster). His name is Josh Waitzkin. He writes chess books, does a series of interactive lessons for the Chessmaster series of PC games, and all indications are that he’s a generally interesting and well-rounded fellow.

    Incidentally, in one of his books he talks about the game with his father that is immortalized in the scene Sheila described. His dad had reached the point where he couldn’t hold his own anymore, so he decided to simply mirror every move Josh made, and Josh exploited that strategy to trap the king. It’s fascinating.