Bobby Fischer Against The World

Bobby Fischer Against The World


Reviewed by: Robert Munro

Bobby Fischer was a genius. A complex, contradictory, confused genius. Liz Garbus’ HBO-produced documentary attempts to peel away Fischer’s boundless layers of brilliance and absurdity to arrive at a better understanding of the man, mostly with tongue firmly in cheek.

Bobby won the US Chess Championship at 14, having become obsessed with the infinite intricacies and tactical nuances of the ancient game as a 6 year old. Raised without a father in a walk-up tenement in Brooklyn, Fischer didn’t ride bikes or play ball or watch cartoons like his contemporaries must have. He played chess.

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Garbus’ film shows us archive footage of Fischer as a young man. Handsome, quick witted, charmingly arrogant and brash – there is little to hint at the rapid unravelling of his mind that would coincide with his rise to the sport’s greatest heights.

The film initially builds to Fischer’s infamous 1972 duel with the reigning World Chess Champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. This championship bout is billed much like the Cold War duel in Rocky IV, with Fischer even retreating to an idyllic mountain hideaway to put his body through its paces in preparation for Spassky.

As in Rocky’s fight with Drago, things do not begin well for the American. After several delays, caused by Fischer’s unique blend of neurosis and arrogance, the match finally gets under way, only for Spassky to race into a 2-0 lead. Fischer recovers to win and astonishes the world with several faultless and, we are assured by several knowledgeable chess folk, aesthetically perfect games. One such game even draws a standing ovation from Spassky.

However, the unheralded fame and global popularity that resulted from Fischer’s victory would pull away at one of his many loose threads, unravelling the daemons that lurked within. He refused to defend his title and withdrew quickly from the public eye, becoming increasingly consumed by abstract conspiracy theories, joining the Church of God.

Understandably, archive footage gets a little thin on the ground here, and Garbus relies a little more heavily on an assortment of talking heads, many of whom were once Fischer’s contemporaries. At this point the film also takes an interesting detour into the psychological complexities of the game itself, and the ability to master it. The ability for the Royal game to act as a liberating escape from a cruel, chaotic world into one ruled by beautiful and calculable patterns; but also as a prison which confines the mind of the player into a myriad of recurring patterns within a 64 square radius, is discussed here at length, immediately bringing to mind the compulsive dread evoked in Stefan Zweig’s excellent novella Chess.

Ultimately it proves difficult for Garbus to convey Bobby’s genius to the uninitiated (like me). Being told how great he was by an assortment of talking heads is all fine and well, but occasionally watching him move one carved figure from one square to another in very little context doesn’t quite do enough to convince. His achievements, and at such a young age, clearly demonstrate his unique ability, but the lack of much footage of him in action, crushing Soviet opponents with the might of his intellect, is a little disappointing.

Due to the nature of the sport (not particularly cinematic) and the nature of the reclusive subject, it is to the filmmakers' credit that such an intriguing, funny, and sad film has come out the other end. Credit must also go to the availability of Harry Benson’s candid photographs of Bobby during his title winning heyday, for providing us with some interior perspective on Fischer’s sheltered private life. A fascinating individual, beset by a burden of intellect others can only marvel at, his demise was ultimately a tragic and unsightly one.

While not pushing the boundaries of documentary filmmaking in its portrayal of a charismatic, obsessive individual (See American: The Bill Hicks Story or Senna in this regard), Bobby Fischer Against The World is suitably engaging , surprisingly funny and quite genuinely emotive: Bobby angrily confronts the son of a man who had previously labelled him ‘insane’ during a press conference with anti-Semitic remarks, to which the son replies ‘you haven’t shown anything today to disprove those remarks’. Certainly it’s an interesting film, although it is one which will probably find a more suitable home on television than through theatrical release.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2011
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A documentary portrait of the brilliant chess champion who gradually lost his mind.
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Director: Liz Garbus

Starring: Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky

Year: 2011

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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