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Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer

What he said:

He

Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy. He is widely believed to be the best chest player of all time. He was also something of a nutjob.  Over time, he seemed to develop a hatred for his Jewish roots. He is said to have been fascinated with Hitler and a reader of white supremacist literature. He also didn’t seem to like his country too much. When told of the September 11 attacks, he responded with, “wonderful news”.

Despite his completely insane beliefs, he was still admired for his chess skills. So whenever an up-and-coming chess player comes along, comparisons are immediately made. Such was the case when NY resident Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) shows a sudden interest in playing the game.

One day while walking home from school, something catches Josh’s eyes. He’s fascinated by the men playing chess in the park; so he asks his mother (played by Joan Allen) if they can go and watch. His mother doesn’t seem to care too much until she realizes the men are actually a bunch of hustlers. They play a certain style known as “speed chess”, in which the players speed up the pace of the game so more often. Most professional chess players think it is a gimmick or even an insult to the game. It’s Josh’s first exposure to the game though and he finds it fascinating. He catches the interest of a player named Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne). After his mother Bonnie gets over her initial fear, she allows Josh to go to the park regularly.  Vinnie takes the interest in Josh and becomes his unofficial mentor.

Meanwhile, Josh is also taking lessons from an eccentric teacher (played by Ben Kingsley). His father Fred (Joe Mantegna) recognizes his talent, but believes he needs a more formal environment to hone his skills; so he seeks out Bruce Pandolfini.  Bruce is like a lot of other chess players – intelligent, a little antisocial, and seemingly miserable – and refuses to teach Josh. He hasn’t taught anyone for a long time, but once he sees Josh play he agrees to coach him. His methods are a little cold compared to Vinnie’s and he is a little socially awkward. This creates some tension and Josh begins to lose interest; especially when Bruce requests Josh stop playing chess in the park. Bonnie sees how happy playing in the park makes him, but Bruce and Fred think that he’s picking up on bad habits. They want him to learn to play “the right way”.

Josh begins to find success on the circuit, but not without his struggles. One of Bruce’s old rivals has a prodigy of his own; a kid named Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg). Poe does nothing but play chess and I’m convinced he could kill something simply by looking at it. This kid is no-nonsense.

I have seen this movie several times. I remember when I was a younger it was running on a cycle on one of the movie channels we had one summer. I remembered it was a good movie, but I hadn’t seen it in years.  I don’t usually get psyched up for a straight up drama, but I like this movie. It’s poignant, funny, and well-acted.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

It’s mind-blowing to me  that both of the young stars in this movie went on to do very little in the acting department. Max Pomeranc was simply excellent as Josh. He was a smart, funny, and kind child; and Pomeranc showed every ounce of that. Perhaps he simply chose to not do much more acting? That is the only way I can see him not getting more work.  His nemesis Poe didn’t have many lines and was only in the movie in snippets, but like I stated earlier, this kid could stare at you through a brick wall and still scare the shit out of you. He was every bit as intimidating as he needed to be.

The adult cast was equally impressive. Joan Allen was great as Josh’s caring mother. She wants him to succeed, but also doesn’t want him turned into one of these obsessive and withdrawn that seem to be fairly common in the chess community. Joe Mantegna was also quite good as his father Fred. Fred also wants Josh to succeed, but seems willing to push a little harder than Bonnie would like. He is mostly on Bruce’s side, but also doesn’t want to see his son unhappy. Speaking of Bruce, what can be said about Ben Kinsley’s performance? The guy is an absolute beast. He seems to just fit into a role so naturally. He performs in such a way that I believe he himself really is a chess master. Laurence Fishburne was also excellent. He’s kind of the Han Solo of the bunch. He is a little rough around the edges, but ultimately cares about Josh’s well-being; and not just his chess career. The back-and-forth between him and Kingsley – though brief – is great.

Another great part of this movie is the musical score. It’s excellent. It classic James Horner helps to convey the core message of the film very well.

Here are a couple of random tidbits for your trivia your inner trivia junkie.  This is based on a true story. Josh is a real person and the movie was adapted from a book his father wrote. I never knew that until recently. The young man who played him was also a ranked chess player at the time of his appearance in this movie. Max Pomeranc was ranked in the top 100 for his age group.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on August 10, 2012.

What She said:

She

First of all, Searching for Bobby Fischer is not actually about Bobby Fischer.  It’s about a little boy, Josh Waitzkin, who is discovered to be a remarkable chess talent, much like Bobby Fischer.  Those around him encourage him to embrace Bobby Fischer’s game tactics in the hope that he will become the next great prodigy, sorting of asking him to “search for his inner Bobby Fischer,” at least that’s my interpretation of the name.

This 1993 film is based on true events as recounted by Josh Waitzkin’s father, Fred.  It’s an interesting character study about the love of a sport/hobby and how that can easily be periled by associated pressures.  Josh discovers one day as he wanders through the park that he has a natural fascination and talent for understanding chess.  There’s a group of hustlers who play speed chess there each day for easy money.  Josh’s mother catches on to the fact that he is interested in chess and encourages the boy to embrace this.  As the boy begins to excel, his father brings in chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who focuses Josh on the techniques of Bobby Fischer and strongly advises against any outside influence, such as from those in the park or youth tournaments.  In fact, Pandolfini’s teachings directly go against what Josh has learned from hustler Vinnie.  As Pandolfini chimes the ideals of “win at any cost” a divide begins to form within the Waitzkin family, and young Josh struggles to continue on with his chess playing.

The story here is very applicable to many hobbies or sports.  It seems that it’s just when we become serious about them that we no longer enjoy them.  The hobbies themselves become and magnified and get out of hand.  There are little league coaches who get in fist fights at games, 10 year olds who feel pressured not to fail, and is an overall sentiment that winning outranks fun and happiness.  Josh yearns to love the game of chess, and while he also likes to win, he wants it to be on his own terms.  Credit to the boy, he does things his way, even when he is encouraged not to.  In the end, we all learn the value of this approach.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is well done, and has some very good acting performances.  Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Mantegna, and Joan Allen all do an excellent job portraying their characters.  Also, young unknown Max Pomeranc is also fabulous (good luck ever finding him in another movie).  The writing in the film is sound and the story fairly interesting.  It’s a little slower paced than the typical sports movie, but is not intended to be quite as uplifting.  Overall, I enjoyed the film, despite almost falling asleep a few times (I was tired after a long day at work, I admit). 

Thumbs up.