It was only a matter of time before some bright spark revisited the story of eccentric chess legend Bobby Fischer. True life tales of tortured geniuses such as a A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Shine (1996) have always been well received and Bobby’s life is tailor made for the big screen.
The young Jewish Savant with a difficult childhood who takes on the Russians at their own game during the Cold War, loses his mind and then disappears into obscurity only to reappear twenty years later as a haggard anti-semite with a pocket full of conspiracy theories. This is the stuff award winning scripts are made of and a few years ago rumours were swirling that a film based on David Edmonds excellent 2004 book Bobby Fischer Goes to War was due to go into production but it never materialised. I’m certain we will see a flick sooner or later but until that merry day we have the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) to wet our appetites.
Unfortunately director Liz Garbus has provided us with a round of sandwiches rather than a gastronomic feast. If you’re a fan of the Biography channel and enjoy sweeping overviews of complicated life stories then you will not be disappointed. Garbus spins the yarn by mashing together interviews, old footage and a funky soundtrack. If you know nothing about Fischer then this is an ideal starting point but what this documentary sorely lacks is depth and dramatic tension.
The problem is obvious. How do you make a film about Chess and not alienate folks who have never picked up a pawn in their lives? It’s not an easy trick to pull off and whilst Garbus succeeds in making the documentary accessible to all. She forgets about those who have knowledge of the game which is surely her primary target audience.
We are shown clips of Fischer as a young chess prodigy beating all comers but it’s not adequately explained why he was so great. Then it jumps from Bobby as a youngster to the build up to the big match with Boris Spassky in Iceland. Almost no time is spent on his previous games and his life during the 1960’s is barely touched upon. This didn’t have to be the case. Garbus could have given us ten minutes of him whipping some grandmasters and losing against some too. As good as Fischer was, he lost many matches along the way but the documentary gives the impression he was some kind of Chess Terminator who couldn’t be killed with conventional weapons.
The 1972 World championship match with Spassky is, as it should be, the main focus of the doc but we are not given enough meat to chew on. This was an epic battle played against the backdrop of Cold War tensions but the climate and politics of the period are not sufficiently explored.
I know it sounds like I didn’t enjoy the film. I did and if you’re not fan of the printed page then this is the best visual retelling of the story around but it’s not a patch on the book Bobby Fischer Goes to War and those interested in the game and the man should pick up a copy post haste.