It’s hard to fathom today, but at the height of his career, chess master Bobby Fischer was by certain accounts better known than any other living person in the world — athlete, entertainer, politician or otherwise. His 1972 World Championship match against Russian Boris Spassky, with the allegorical heft of its East-versus-West implications, helped spark a worldwide surge in the interest in chess, while his hermetic personality rendered him a compelling if inscrutable public figure far outside the realm of his area of expertise. Bobby Fischer Against the World, a new documentary which frames itself against the backdrop of the aforementioned high-stakes match but also tackles the iconoclastic nature of its subject both personally and professionally, makes a persuasive, emotionally involving case for the dark, troubled flipside of genius.
Fischer has been the subject of numerous books and a couple nonfiction films, and remains an intriguing subject both because of the headstrong way he tackled his sport, upsetting many defenders of the status quo, and also the manner in which he sort of disappeared, “retiring” in his early 30s after refusing in 1975 to defend his title. Directed by Emmy Award winner Liz Garbus, Bobby Fischer Against the World is appropriately titled, on several levels. It first sketches out the many structural advantages granted Russian players — where chess was embraced as a means by which to prove the intellectual superiority of Communist orthodoxy — whereas the self-taught Fischer, on the other hand, was the lone son of a working poor single mother who threw himself into the study of chess with an obsession that proved effective yet also alienating, even to those few close to him. The movie’s title also serves to underscore the manner in which Fischer’s rise to prominence within the chess world took on the qualities of a strange surrogate battle in the Cold War; when Fischer balked at some of the conditions surrounding his best-of-24-match showdown with reigning champion Spassky, and seemed ready not to show up, none other than Secretary of State Henry Kissinger beseeched him in a phone call.
Garbus captures the full breadth and scope of this drama without ever sacrificing its human qualities. Interview subjects include not only chess masters who provide personal and professional insights, but also Fischer’s brother-in-law, public figures like Kissinger and talk show host Dick Cavett, and more. The use of news clips show the prominent placement afforded Fischer’s showdown with Spassky in relation to Watergate and other important national news, and Garbus’ smart, occasional deployment of slick, groove-laden contemporary tunes like T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Parts 1 and 2” and the theme from Shaft give the movie an additional pop currency.
The big 1972 chess match itself, the film’s centerpiece, is plenty fascinating. It’s incredible to think that this was broadcast nationally on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, complete with commentary from chess experts and even a sketch artist assigned to track Fischer from his hotel and sit in the gallery during matches. From Fischer’s amateur-level mistake in the first game and various no-shows by the participants over the course of its weeks-long schedule to increasingly far-fetched and paranoid claims of radiation or electrical disturbances implanted in lights and chairs, there’s a great and engaging tension to be found in the intellectual and psychological grappling.
Every bit as remarkable, though, is the film’s portrait of Fischer, the boy and the man. This material — of an almost otherworldly focused Fischer — provides a revealing counterpoint to his later withdrawal from society. Swallowed by fear (perhaps to live up to his oft-stated goal of retaining the world championship for a couple decades) and beset by depression, Fischer gave up competitive chess, and grew to increasingly entertain various paranoid delusions of both individual persecution and vast, anti-Semitic conspiracy.
It’s been said, many times and ways, that the line between genius and madness is a thin one. Bobby Fischer Against the World shows the truth in that statement, without ever casting unduly harsh judgment upon its subject. That which would trouble and haunt Fischer for so much of his life is also what made him perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (HBO Films/Moxie Firecracker, unrated, 93 minutes)