The 'Rocky' of chess movies

August 11, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" is a movie built on a paradox: It aspires to make a rousing, upbeat, arc-of-triumph story out of the most cerebral, meditative of contests -- chess. And that's what's so interesting about it.

Even as he's trying to get you to cheer as you did in "Rocky," filmmaker Steven Zaillian is aware of the absurdity of his situation: He's filming small boys as they push ritualized plastic soldiers around a little square board. If you are one of the 54 or 55 people in America who understand what QR-4 to KN-3 means, you're in pig heaven. Otherwise, you're going to be lost.

So Zaillian finds ways to circumvent. He brilliantly invents a visual language of chess, to keep you in the game whether or not you know the Queen from the horsie. As his young hero, Josh Waitzkin, closes in on yet another gullible chump, Zaillian builds the cutting rhythms, following the bloodless but violent battle on the board. We could be at Waterloo or Agincourt or just outside Camelot, amid collapsing ranks of infantry, charging horsemen, the burning of castles. And then the last moment, the coup d'etat as it were: The Queen pops into crisp focus out of the blur of battle and you know the kid has won again.

That's one of many deep pleasures in this extremely captivating movie -- the confidence that Zaillian displays in knowing just how much he can get away with. The movie has been pared to fragments and snippets like some European art film (its artiness, however, does grow wearying); it never pauses to explain, it simply accumulates detail and force as it progresses without seeming to impose phony emotion on its events.

Chess, say the experts, is one of three areas of endeavor where genius can evince itself startlingly early, music and mathematics being the others. This fact was brought home to a New York sportswriter named Fred Waitzkin one morning when his son Josh, then 7, trounced his butt big time without even looking at the board -- he was also playing cowboy and talking on the phone at the same time. More amazing yet was the fact that . . . nobody had ever taught the kid how to play! (The scene is brilliantly re-created in the film.)

Josh (played by Max Pomeranc), it swiftly developed, was one of the blessed. The board, a maze of confusion to us mere mortals, was to him, by the grace of a great number in the genetic roulette table, a garden of opportunity. He had that mystic way of seeing into and through it and was able to understand the secret physics of its fields of force with a rare clarity. His father (well played here by Joe Mantegna) understood this, and arranged for the boy to have the best chess tutor in the world, Bruce Pandolfini of the Manhattan Chess Club.

But the goal of the son and the father were somewhat at variance. Though both were in some sense searching for Bobby Fischer, they saw opposite meanings in Fischer's strange greatness, or in his great strangeness. The boy understood his incredible genius but the father was wise and strong enough to want the boy to have all that his talent could earn him without at the same time letting the child be gobbled by the paranoia and eccentricity that was also the hallmark of the Fischer brain.

But that's only subtext.

The true drama that Zaillian chooses to define his story (which is drawn from Fred's book) is a tiff between competing masters for the soul of young Josh. One, Ben Kingsley as Pandolfini, is austere and adult: He counsels the wisdom of position, of conservatism, of letting the other guy make mistakes. The other, represented in the film by Laurence Fishburne under a bald head and Satanic goatee, is a Washington Square commando, king of the small-time chess hustlers in Greenwich Village's fabled park, and he urges Josh to attack and take no prisoners, to move swiftly and violently. It's a military classic: Zhukov vs. Rommel or Grant vs. Lee.

The signal dramatic weakness of the film is that Zaillian never really resolves this issue. Instead, he so invests Josh with such virtue that the young man is able to somehow synthesize the two conflicting ideologies into one wholesome philosophy which may reassuring to a movie audience but ultimately feels like a cop-out. In real life, you almost always have to choose and you have to leave something you care about behind.

And, though the film wears its refinement and elitism on its sleeve, Zaillian isn't above indulging in low-movie hyperbole: He gives the drama edge by providing Josh with a bete noir, another young chess genius who is personified only in the blank

and remorseless glare, a kind of 10-year-old chess psycho whose mere presence is so intimidating he drives Josh to make dumb mistakes. Yet another unfortunately melodramatic stroke makes this boy the protege of a mysterious old nemesis of Pandolfini's.

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