Saturday 5 June 2021

Movie Review: Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)

A sports drama, Searching For Bobby Fischer explores the clash between adult aspirations of dominance and life's simple pleasures through the story of a chess prodigy.

In New York City, seven year old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) demonstrates a natural talent for chess, to the surprise of his parents Fred and Bonnie (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen). Josh sharpens his skills playing speed chess with the sketchy Washington Square Park locals, where he establishes a friendship with Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne).

Fred hires chess coach Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), and Josh starts to dominate tournaments. Bruce believes Josh could be as good as legendary world champion Bobby Fischer, and along with Fred they both get over-invested in the child's success and pressure him into adopting a winning-is-all mentality. But Josh also enjoys baseball, fishing and just being a kid, and seeks a more rounded approach to life, supported by Bonnie.

Based on a true story and Fred Waitzkin's book, Searching For Bobby Fischer is sweet, tender and only sometimes overblown. Writer and director Steve Zaillian ensures the story of a child thrust into a competitive world appeals to children and their parents, and while the simple life lessons for both kid (be yourself) and dad (back off) are none too subtle, the package is undeniably appealing.

The topic is chess, but it could be any sport. Zaillian skips past trying to explain the rules or intricacies of the game (other than Pandolfini obliquely referring to it as "art"), and focusses instead on the pressures imposed on a youngster displaying natural talent and aptitude. Fred gets emotionally wrapped-up in his son's potential, Pandolfini want to make amends for his past failures (only cryptically alluded to), and suddenly what started as fun for young Josh becomes a pressurized cauldron.

In snippets and historical flashbacks Josh narrates the story of eccentric American champion Bobby Fischer, a child prodigy who gate-crashed the heretofore Soviet-dominated chess world of the early 1970s before promptly disappearing. Josh gets saddled with the "next Bobby Fischer" label, both an honour and an unwanted weight on his young shoulders. According to Pandolfini, Fischer and most world champions are singularly dedicated to chess and display arrogance and disdain towards their opponents. Josh acknowledges the strength of his upbringing by recoiling from the cut-throat nastiness seemingly required to reach the top and stay there.

The mass market concessions appear in the portrayals of chess as a slam-down event, players almost always making their moves aggressively and theatrically whacking the timing clocks. James Horner's music score does not help by regularly soaring to extreme saccharine levels. The late introduction of a tournament nemesis sets-up a good if overly contrived climax. 

Zaillian shows restraint by limiting the running time to 110 minutes, and excellent work from the cast helps maintain spry energy levels. Max Pomeranc expresses mature self-awareness to nudge Josh's environment towards rationality, while Joe Mantegna, Ben Kinglsey and Laurence Fishburne are different versions of adults channeling aspirations through their kids. The wonders of genius are luminescent, but as one child demonstrates, the pathways to fulfilment are numerous.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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