Director: Steven Zaillian
Original Release: 1993
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
I love chess. It is a beautiful game of elegance and artistry. The board, the pieces and the rules reach back across centuries, yet each new generation has geniuses who expand the possibilities. I won't pretend that I'm any good, though there have been periods in my life when I've devoted significant time to getting better. As a lifelong enthusiast for games of all varieties, chess is the most puzzling, infuriating, mystifying, inspiring and satisfying of all.
Searching for Bobby Fischer was not the chess film I initially had in mind for family movie night this week. For a long time, I've had my eye on Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, a documentary about the grandmaster's misadventures against IBM's computer Deep Blue. But when my daughter asked what we were watching and I said a chess movie, she said, "Oo, yay! A chess movie!"
Suddenly, a sense of responsibility kicked in. If she's this excited about a chess movie - and mind you, she doesn't play chess herself - I'd better be sure it's a good one. The Kasparov film, while intriguing, has admittedly gotten mixed reviews. Searching for Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, is one of my old favorites - a sure thing.
The movie isn't actually about Bobby Fischer at all. It's about Josh Waitzkin, a young chess prodigy growing up in New York City. One could even argue that it's not really about chess. Instead, it's a cautionary tale for parents pushing their kids too hard, losing perspective as they drive their children to excel. When I first saw the movie in the theater back in my college years, I was most impressed with Josh and the inspiring sports movie angle. But as an adult who has spent too many hours in studios listening to my fellow dance parents and on the sidelines to the soccer parents, I tear up when Dan Hedaya (great cameo!) banishes the moms and dads from the tournament floor and all the kids applaud. A film one can appreciate for different reasons at different life stages - that, dear friends, is the mark of a great movie.
A lot of Hollywood heavyweights signed on for this one: Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy and Laura Linney plus a fantastic cameo by Tony Shalhoub. Cinematographer Conrad Hall got a much deserved Oscar nomination. He took the chess theme to heart. In one memorable scene, we hear Kingsley's voice before we see him. The actor in front of him steps away as Sir Ben comes into view - not unlike a discovered attack on a chessboard.
Kasparov will keep for another day.
- I had a hard time gauging Our Girl's interest as we watched. She hid under the blanket when Mantegna's character was at his overbearing worst. But she came around by the end. Her first comment when it was over: "Dad, will you teach me to play chess tomorrow?"