The hardest type of guy for an actor to play is one without charisma. That's the challenge faced by Tobey Maguire in Edward Zwick's Pawn Sacrifice, which tells the story of Cold War-era chess champ and totally strange human being Bobby Fischer. He's good at it — maybe too good. In the opening scene, racked by paranoia in the moments before he's set to face Boris Spassky in game two of the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, Fischer tears apart his hotel room, searching for surveillance equipment. His eyes are as wild as the knit-in zigs and zags of his Seventies-style patterned sweater. Maguire makes us believe in Fischer's tortured soul — the problem is that with his quivering lips and jittery brain waves, he can't quite hold the screen. And whenever Liev Schreiber, as Spassky, comes strolling into the frame, all hope is lost. Maguire may be the lead, but Schreiber — whether dressed in a sober gray Soviet suit or emerging from an ocean swim like a sea god deciding he'd like to have a strut on land — takes his queen every time.
Even so, Pawn Sacrifice clicks along with crisp efficiency. Zwick, the director behind movies like Glory and Blood Diamond, is old-school in his attention to craftsmanship, alive to telling details. A flashback showing Fischer as a kid in a cowboy shirt, trying to get the attention of his radical-lefty mom (Robin Weigert) at the party she's hosting in the family's Brooklyn flat, suggests a little boy lost from the beginning: When he finally retreats to bed, we see the chess set standing loyally on a table nearby — it's easy to see how an extremely bright, lonely kid would find solace in the logic of the game. Later, as a teenager with his sights trained on greatness, Fischer throws a temper tantrum as his mom gets a bit too noisy with her boyfriend. "I need silence, understand! I want silence!" he screams. Then, in a megalomaniacal fit, he kicks her out of their home altogether.
As his chess skills grow, Fischer's grasp of reality begins to crack, though he's not wrong about everything: He's suspected of being a Communist spy, and the government is clocking his every move. He spends way too much time listening to weird anti-Communist, anti-Semitic tapes, but at least he makes time to have sex — for the first time — with a hooker with that heart of proverbial gold. (She's played by Evelyne Brochu.) But the best part of Pawn Sacrifice is the finale, in which Fischer, almost miraculously, puts his neuroses to work in a set of moves that wins him the championship, seemingly against all odds. Zwick finds smart ways to locate the dynamism in a very subtle game, one that requires its players to use brain muscles more than the physical kind: The energy of the picture's taut final moments are built from the way Schreiber arches an eyebrow or Maguire scrutinizes the board with his pinwheel stare. Then again, this was an era when major chess matches were televised, and watched by just about everybody, on the Wide World of Sports. Would today's mass audience — to the extent that a mass audience even exists — have the patience for such a thing? Pawn Sacrifice turns the clock back to a time when the country, and the world, could see the infinite colors in a game played out in black-and-white.
Starring Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Lily Rabe. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Steven Knight. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday, September 25, at Living Room Theaters (FAU Main Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton; 561-549-2600; fau.livingroomtheaters.com).