Monday, February 11, 2013

Family Movie Night: Searching for Bobby Fischer

Title: Searching for Bobby Fischer
Director: Steven Zaillian
Original Release: 1993
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Amazon

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.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • 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?"


  1. Squidman, so very much about this review to love. And I'm starting to see, now, just how much a compliment 4 out of 5 stars can be from you.

    True confessions: I don't know how to play chess.

    1. Never too late to learn.

      This one's definitely a high 4 and it's tempting to give it a 5. But I'm stingy. Is it the movie that I think of when seeing comparable movies? No. For me, the gold standards for sports/games movies are "Hoosiers" and "Bull Durham." They're the 5s in this category.

    2. No, certainly never too late.

      Can you name any other films that are 5s for you off the top of your head?

    3. My favorite 3 films all-time are easily recalled: "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Philadelphia Story" and "The Usual Suspects."

    4. ESB = modern classic.

      TPS, this is the one you watched with your wife on the first or second date? If so, lovely to have such a meaningful association with an all-time fave. :)

      TUS. Ugh, Squidman. I read the summary on Wiki and I could never watch it. And to think I had a friend (Manny, in fact, from the Christmas Quiz if you remember) who called me Keyser Suze! Now I'm all disturbed. :(

      My favorite 3 films all-time are not so easily recalled but 'When Harry Met Sally' is surely among them. I'll have to give some thought to other two.

    5. I love TPS and TUS for essentially the same reason: brilliant writing. They're the sort of films where you feel as if every word of every line was chosen very carefully. The dialogue just trips across the tongues of the actors.

      Harry/Sally is a great one. I remember seeing that one in the theater - the Avalon in northwest DC. We also went to Katz's Diner (that of the faked orgasm scene) in NYC a couple of times while we lived there.

    6. That's funny that you mention the diner. I was just remembering a Katz's Deli in Houston yesterday. I like very much that you remember the theater in which you watched Harry/Sally. I do, too. I went with my mom and dad to a theater that no longer exists.

      Brilliant writing is not something you come across a lot in screenplays; less so when the lines are delivered impeccably, like an earthbound volley that just wants to careen out of control but somehow manages to remain what it needs to be. That is an unqualified joy to watch/listen to.

    7. Katz's Deli (Meant to correct myself on that. Deli not Diner. I'm such a doof.) - It's funny you went to one in Houston as it's on Houston Street in NY. Of course, there they pronounce it differently: HOW-stin. Crazy New Yorkers... Or is it crazy Texans?

      Most of my 5s get them for the writing. You say Usual Suspects spooks you but the script is truly exceptional. I recommend Philadelphia Story for you. The story is, frankly, pretty dumb - the sort of thing you'd read in a tabloid mag, which is the whole point. But the dialogue - wow! The words just sparkle. And you couldn't ask for a better cast.

    8. 'Usual Suspects' appeared to have some very harsh moments in the storyline. I'm just not fond.

      I can't hear the HOW-stin. I'm trying to imagine the NY accent and I just can't quite hear the music of that pronunciation in my mind's ear. :)

      I will look into getting a hold of a copy of TPS. Thank you for the recommendation. Pow! dialogue is definitely my cuppa.

      One other film that might rank up there for me is 'Back to the Future.' I'm really not very highbrow, you see. :)

    9. Actually a playwright friend of mine really likes "Back to the Future" - pound for pound, one of the best screenplays around, he says. I'm especially fond of the professor.

    10. Fun fact: Eric Stolz filmed as Marty McFly for five months until they decided he wasn't working in the role. Enter Mike Fox.

    11. I heard that recently, too. NPR interview with Zimeckis?

      It would have been a very different movie with Stolz. I like him but MJF has such impeccable comic timing. He and Christopher Lloyd play off each other beautifully.

    12. I agree! I watched it recently with my daughter and was surprised to feel a little lump in my throat when Marty says goodbye to Doc before traveling back, knowing he gets shot on the night of his original trek into the past.

      It was great fun to watch it with my girl and point out the bloopers, etc. I watched that movie a lot as a kid.

      Looping back to the original topic of your post, wanted to share a very cool tune, definitely one of my all-time faves and very entwined with my writing of Chevy Loves Mallory Keaton (CLMK.)

      It uses chess as metaphor. A really beautiful song, in my opinion. I love the guitar, golden maple dripping off those strings. Also particularly enamored of what the song as a whole is doing starting at 2:11ish.

    13. Well yeah, how could one not love that song? Lots of nice little Lennon tributes, including the one at 2:11ish.