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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Pawn Sacrifice

by director Edward Zwick

Growing up in the 1950s, I spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about The Bomb. I was five years old when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first satellite capable of orbiting the earth. I remember lying in bed visualizing its shadow passing over suburban Chicago and firing down a Flash Gordon–like Death Ray that would fry our split-level house to a crisp.

I evoke this childish paranoia to suggest why I’ve always had a particular fascination with Bobby Fischer. In 4th grade I joined the chess club. It was led by Mr. Kutinsky, a Russian émigré. As he led us in “duck-and-cover” drills beneath our school desks in the event of a nuclear attack by his former motherland, the FBI and the KGB were actually surveilling Bobby’s family. While we sat in class listening to President Kennedy warn of Russian missiles in Cuba trained on U.S. cities, the Russian Chess Federation was devoting thousands of hours developing tactics to defeat Bobby at age 13.

Truth be told, I was never very good at chess, and my interest soon gave way to playing baseball, listening to rock and roll and chasing girls. As I devoted myself to making out in the back of cars, Bobby was traveling the world, often alone, playing grueling matches against grown men hell-bent on destroying him. In adolescence, I found refuge in books and movies. Bobby’s childhood was less happy. His family life was a mess, whereas chess was logical and transparent. And so he sought comfort in the unemotional moves and calculations of a game at which he was quickly recognized as a genius. Its infinite combinations and strategies not only appealed to his obsessive perfectionism but also to a fierce competitiveness common to all great athletes. That it simultaneously enflamed deep, undiagnosed mental health issues is perhaps the greatest irony of his tragic story.

And so when I first read Steve Knight’s screenplay, I was instantly cast back to July, 1972 and Bobby’s quest for the world championship. Reading each vivid scene was like being allowed backstage at a performance to which only I had been in the audience. That summer, I remember coming home from my sweaty summer job, sitting in the air-conditioned living room in front of our new color TV and watching Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace describe the day’s results. The arrival of the Beatles had created the first truly international celebrities, but Bobby was a new kind of hero—anti-authoritarian, arrogant and cool. He was our hip gladiator, an American David setting forth to bring down the mighty Soviet Goliath.

Yet despite all that has been written about Bobby, there remains something unknowable about him. And a fiction film purporting to tell a “true story” is therefore a contradiction in terms. Movies aren’t just reductionist—compressing months, even years, into a tidy two hour experience—they also attempt to impose order and shape on events that were in the their moment, chaotic, complex, even random. In the name of drama, events are abbreviated, ideas are simplified, and perhaps worst of all, the maddening, often unfathomable messiness of human behavior is made knowable for the sake of satisfying drama. At best, a film hopes to capture the kind of elusive emotional truths not often found in the historical record. If our movie manages to provide a deeper understanding of one of the most intriguing moments in popular culture, not to mention one its most compelling and vexing figures, then it will have succeeded beyond our wildest intentions.