DIR: Liz Garbus • PRO: Liz Garbus, Matthew Justus, Rory Kennedy • DOP: Robert Chappell • ED: Michael Levine Karen Schmeer
The world has forgotten Bobby Fischer. It’s hard to believe that only 40 years ago Fischer was perhaps the most talked about, idolised and controversial figure in the world – given nowadays few under 40 would know the name, or stand a chance of spelling it right. This insightful but depressing HBO documentary serves as a welcome reminder of a man, and an era, that seems too distant and unrecognisable to have been so recent.
For those who do not know, Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player the world has ever seen. For this film, no foreknowledge of Fischer or chess is needed, only a basic understanding of the underlying factors of the Cold War; because for the first two-thirds of the film, that is pretty much all this story is. Accepting that chess was the one sport (if we’ll allow it to be called that) that the US and USSR could both hope to hold the world title in, the infamous Fischer/Spassky game in 1972 is the closest reality ever came to Rocky IV.
The US became utterly chess-obsessed in the run-up to the championship game, with the documentary offering footage and newspaper clippings to demonstrate just how enormous a deal this was. Delaying a report on the newly breaking Watergate scandal, a US TV news anchor declares: ‘But first… Bobby Fischer!’ It is difficult for anyone now to believe that a game of chess could have seemed as pivotal to the Cold War as the Space Race, but the evidence is laid out here to digest. When the chess prodigy cum prima donna, plagued by psychological difficulties born of his obsessive nature, refuses to go to Reykjavik for the game – in a move that will remind Irish viewers all-too-well of events in Saipan in 2002 – Henry Kissinger himself must intervene. The gravity of these events is incredible.
There is some incredible footage gathered here: TV interviews with the boy genius from the 1950s, a photo montage of his physical training to prepare for the championship match, clips from the first round of his joust with Boris Spassky, before the increasingly paranoid and tetchy Fischer demanded the cameras be switched off. These are complimented by a series of enlightening if patronising talking head interviews, which are weakened by the tendency of more than one interviewee to stare down the camera like it was a Magic Eye drawing. That director Liz Garbus was able to get Kissinger himself to agree to an interview is a triumph unto itself.
The final act of the film traces Fischer’s fall from grace and rapid descent into paranoia, rage and anti-Semitism (even more outrageous given he was the son of Jewish parents). His triumphalism on 9/11 is a low point as devastating as any a major biopic has ever shown. The filmmakers must be lauded for not shying away this matter, and painting a balanced portrait of this brilliant, cursed man. It is a traditional, straightforward documentary, and while it is considerably less entertaining than the thrilling hagiography of the recent Senna, it is definitely more willing to inspect its subject’s dark side.
With the exception of the Benny & Björn and Tim Rice musical Chess, loosely inspired by the Fischer/Spassky match, Fischer has been a figure largely absent from pop culture for some time. As this film reminds its limited audience of the tragic figure, don’t be surprised if you hear of a feature film creeping through the Hollywood production pipeline any time soon.
Bobby Fischer Against the World is released on 15th July 2011