The anti-intellectual cliché equating genius with madness gets a full, at times riveting but ultimately unsatisfying airing in Liz Garbus' handsome if somewhat workmanlike documentary-cum-oral history, Bobby Fischer Against The World. Garbus, whose film was funded by American cable giant HBO, has unearthed a cornucopia of rare audio and visual material about Fischer, a self-taught chess phenomenon who captured the American Champion title while still in his teens and went on to decimate an entire generation of state-sponsored Russian masters during the latter stages of the Cold War. But despite Fischer's physical presence in a wealth of relatively unrevealing archival interview footage, Garbus' over-reliance on interviews that state rather than dramatize Fischer's excellence makes this a portrait that too often seems more overheard than inhabited. Box office prospects are limited, but TV audiences should be satisfied enough to stay tuned.
Imagine, if you can, a film about Chopin containing precious little of his music but a large number of people telling you how wonderful his compositions are and you have some idea of the frustrating central flaw here. Despite some lip service to a few radical maneuvers on Fischer's part during his epochal 1972 world championship battle with Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer Against The World seems reluctant to risk alienating a general audience by truly delving into the tactical and strategic complexities of the game at which Fischer excelled. Instead, we have ominous foreshadowing of the breakdowns that so tarnished Fischer's legacy after his abrupt retirement at age 29; in later life he became a vicious anti-semite and embittered exile, gloating openly about the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Mozart is mentioned more than once, but the real story template is that of Michael Jackson: the unloved child prodigy, warped by early fame, deprived of simpler pleasures and ill-equipped for life as its lived by the rest of us.
We are told repeatedly that Fischer was the best chess player of all time, but no interviewee ever gives a very clear picture of what was so revolutionary about his technique. Even the Fischer-Spassky match, which is the core of the film, is mostly a gloss, focusing more on Fischer's depressive and eccentric behavior in the run up to the confrontation than on the intricacies of the game play itself. In its external details, the Fischer/Spassky match seems mostly like a ludicrous media spectacle, with Fischer forcing his hosts to remove all the TV cameras before he'll continue to play, and Spassky countering with charges that he believes the CIA is infiltrating his body with radiation to ruin his concentration and wreck his game. The film wants us to believe that somehow a phenomenal match occurred under these circumstances, but what seems as likely from the presented evidence is that Cold War hysteria and hype impacted both chess masters, and that clash of civilizations rhetoric and the resultant socio-political need for these games to be emblematic of larger issues have drastically overestimated their significance.
It doesn't help matters that Garbus, who came to prominence as co-director of the superb and subtle vérité character study The Farm: Angola, USA is now aping Errol Morris, like so many documentarians. Her interviewees stare into the lens (a Morris signature), and her score is yet another blunderbuss impersonation of the Phillip Glass soundtrack to Mishima. Morris uses these showy techniques with idiosyncrasy, will and intent, but for Garbus, these choices seem like easy tropes, and they damage her film, especially when she wants to strike a tone other than poeticized noncommittal. The generalized paranoia of the Cold War period in particular fails to register; this is a critical misstep, because the Fischer-Spassky championship match is nothing if not an archetypal Cold War story. Arpeggio laden underscoring jogtrots us through a collage of images so briskly that even as our minds register that Nixon, Kissinger and Brezhnev have just flashed by, their presence, and the ideological death match they waged by proxy through Fischer and Spassky (just as much as on the battlefields of the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam), fails to impact or reach us.
Distributor: Music Box Films
Director: Liz Garbus
Producers: Liz Garbus, Stanley Buchthal, Rory Kennedy and Matthew Justus
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: Summer 2011