Monday, 24 January 2011
SUNDANCE 2011: Bobby Fischer Against the World
By Alan Bacchus
We all know the story of Bobby Fischer, who, at the height of his career, was the one of the most famous people in the world - for playing chess. This new HBO feature doc, examines the man's complicated life from his well publicized early years as a wunderkind all the way to his famous reclusion and sad psychological breakdown. In between director Liz Garbus chronicles in the riveting day-by-day details of the 'Match of the Century' with Boris Spassky for the World Championship. It’s a familiar story well told, a fascinating story of sport, pop culture, politics, and most importantly, the rare phenomenon of genius.
To devote one’s entire life to such a complex and brain taxing endeavour such as chess requires another level of dedication more than mere strength training or endurance. And to do it at the World Championship level history has shown requires a dedication of one's mind at the sacrifice of conventional social abilities.
This is what happened to Bobby Fischer who, as the youngest American chess champion ever, was in the public eye before he turned 16. Most children aren't prepared for this let alone a damaged psychological mind such as Fischer's.
Fischer's malaise and erratic behaviour comes up prominently in the lead up to the 1972 Grandmaster Championship - an event more than just for the sport of chess, but a Cold War battle of democracy vs. communism.
The public awareness of chess in the United States during those few months in 1972 is astonishing. A sport completely off the radar for 99.9% of the population was suddenly the most watched event that summer and fall of 1972. With well-chosen pop music tracks, Garbus magnificently captures the flavour, feeling and excitement of those times.
The one frustrating element missing from the picture is our ability to see Spassky and Fischer together playing the match. In the first game well placed film and TV cameras captured every dramatic moment of the match, especially the nail biting intensity of Fischer's face and body posture. But of course, part of the drama of the match was Fischer’s demand for cameras to be removed from the room, a request conceded by Spassky. As such we never get to see the rest of the match, only recreations from other chess masters discussing the strategies after the fact.
After the match Garbus documents the gradual destruction of his mind due to his severe anxiety afflictions - a psychosis which rendered him almost completely anti-social, and ironically anti-semetic and anti-American. After Fischer's 1990 ressurection the public finally got to see the broken-down state of the man, a shadow of his former self, both as a chess player and a human being - a sad, sombre but effective ending to a high energy documentary.
With maximum production value, for the 90 minute running time of the film Liz Garbus rekindles the same kind of collective interest in chess as we saw in 1972.