Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Seventeen

Top5090s17

#17 — Searching for Bobby Fischer (Steven Zaillian, 1993)
There are so many things that movies do wonderfully well, arguably better than any other medium, and those naturally tend to be the elements that grab the attention more forcefully and linger in the memory with the greatest resonance. It is is the epic, the sensational, the explosive, and the crazily vivid that work best on the big screen. Even if the intellect disengages, there is a deeper, visceral reaction that can be hard to deny. This, to my mind, makes it all the more impressive when a filmmaker embraces a story that doesn’t seem especially cinematic, that doesn’t have all sorts of natural entryways to quickening pulses with the sheer force of it, and creates a finished product so perfectly realized that its hard to imagine it presented any other way.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is about a chess prodigy. Based on a book written by Fred Waitzkin that detailed his son’s emergence as a powerhouse player who needed to take time off from attending elementary school to participate in major tournaments, Zaillian’s film is a true beauty, grappling honestly with its subject, and sympathetically considering the ramifications on childhood when play rapidly transforms into competition. In Zaillian’s screenplay, this boy is not some standard-issue movie moppet spouting wisecracks or dispensing little gems of worldly wisdom. Instead, he is unmistakably just a normal kid, viewing this ancient art form of a game as little different that the plastic contraption Mousetrap diversion he plays with his little sister. It’s a pleasing choice by Zaillian that’s further enhanced by the kind-hearted, utterly unaffected performance of Max Pomeranc.

Within the narrative there is a tug of war between two different mentors, one advocating a traditional approach, and the other boisterously arguing for something looser, free from the constraints of conventional wisdom. This same conflict plays out across the wide landscape of art itself, including within the world of film, and just as both sensibilities inform young Josh Waitzkin’s chess playing, so to do they jointly shape Zaillian’s writing and directing. Fittingly, Zaillian doesn’t betray a preference from one side or the other in the progression of the story. Even if it’s more reckless play that proves successful for Josh in the film’s closing match, it is the more traditional teacher who first recognizes–and perhaps most deeply appreciates–a gesture of kindness that Josh extends to his opponent, a gesture more revelatory about the boy who has offered it than any ranking on a computer printout could ever be.

Key to the success of the film, and absolutely central to why the story works so well as a film, is that Zaillian is not just a fine writer, but an excellent screenwriter. Throughout Searching for Bobby Fischer there are ideal examples of exploiting all the visual possibilities of film to tell the story, build the characters, and reinforce the themes. There’s certainly the occasional spirited monologue too, and sharp, succinct dialogue aplenty, but Zaillian often lets his images carry the moment with little verbal reinforcement, from toy figures standing in for chessman to the vigorous energy of weathered men playing a sedate, refined game aggressively in the park. Zaillian proves that, small as his story may be, only the biggest screen can properly capture it.

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