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Based on a true story the feature focuses upon a child chess prodigy,
Josh Waitzkin. Oh, the lad does enjoy things like baseball, but as soon
as he discovers his gift for chess, then it is a new beginning. We
often see child masterminds in music and in art and in the sciences,
including mathematics. For instance, didn't Mozart make his debut at
age four? And what about Pascal, who wrote a treatise at age nine?
Anyway, our seven year-old chess genius has a grasp of complicated
moves that exceeds that of adults. Still, he is just a boy; he simply
has not lived. In the film, we see clips of the great chess
grandmaster, Bobby Fischer, who won the US Chess Championship at age
14. He could play (and win) many board games at once. He became
official world champion in 1972 when he defeated Soviet champ Boris
Spassky. After his victory, he appeared on a Bob Hope TV special. But
after 1975 he became a recluse and practically disappeared from the
planet. Fischer had controversial beliefs. For instance, he believed in
a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and favored the Palestinians over
Israel. In any case, the film's title refers not to Bobby Fischer, but
to a potential American successor, one who plays like him (like Josh).
And hopefully not one who had lived such an abnormal life like Fischer.
Josh Waitzkin, well-played by Max Pomeranc, a real chess player, was born with his gift, which he discovers at an early age. He enjoys going to Washington Park in NYC to play with the dregs and hustlers who hang out there. Note that one of the Russian players there once defeated Tal, who was world champ in 1960-61. The Washington Park folks play a fast game ("blitz"), use unorthodox moves, and intimate their opponents. Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), a drug addict, is one of the hustlers in the park. He seems to like Josh. As he parents discover Josh's gift, they seem oblivious of what to do with it. For instance, is winning at chess the only thing in life? Eventually, Josh's sports-writer father Fred (Joe Mantegna, in a luminous performance), hires Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) a brilliant chess-master and former national champion, to coach his son. Bruce's style, in contrast to Vinnie's, is to use the planned approach. But Bruce seems to be almost as difficult to deal with as Fischer. He says that Josh's personality is represented by the KING chess piece, and reminds Josh that "Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt." Bruce wants to keep the boy away from Washington Park, which is a hindrance to his understanding of the finer points of chess even though Josh loves the place. When Bruce later tries to teach Josh the cutthroat style of chess, Josh's mother (Bonnie = Joan Allen), becomes chagrined and states, "He's decent!" (Translation = He does not hate his opponents.) When a patronizing teacher (Laura Linney) tries to belittle Josh's achievement his string of victories Fred indignantly proclaims, "He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about."
There is a point where one may ask what happens when the need to win consumes all of the fun. In the course of the movie, we learn much about tournament chess, as Josh works his way to the top. We see what happens when he begins to lose interest and sustains a series of reverses before he regains his position. In the end it comes down to the two best players Josh and Jonathan Poe for the junior national championship. Who will win?
The movie is based upon Fred Waitzkin's autobiographical book. Our feature does not focus on any one game or on individual piece moves, so that one does not need to know how to play chess to enjoy the film. Ben Kingsley, as usual, is great in his portrayal of Bruce Pandolfini, a real New York personality who teaches chess, writes columns, and has authored many books. He actually coached young Waitzkin for quite a long time. Apparently the real Pandolfini is milder and has a more easygoing style, unlike the movie's portrayal. But that's Hollywood. An error is the film was a reference to former world champion Casablanca; that grandmaster's real name was Jose Raul Capablanca (In 1921 Capablanca defeated Emanuel Lasker, who had held the world championship since 1894, when he bested Wilhelm Steinitz). Despite minor issues, the movie exudes both realism and fascination.
Postscript: Josh Waitzkin became an International Master at age 16. He developed into the highest rated American chess player under age 18, and was national chess champion eight times. Waitzkin authored two books. He moved on into the martial arts field, and won championships. The youngest grandmaster in American history is now Fabiano Luigi Caruana, who was not quite 15 when he won in 2007.
"Searching for Bobby Fischer" contains in its title a reminder of a
time that was. Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player of
all time. As a boy, he faced and defeated the greatest players of his
time. In 1972, after a prelude of countless controversies, he won the
world chess championship away from the Russians for the first time in
years. Then he essentially disappeared and went off the deep end-- into
a underworld of rented rooms, phantom sightings, and paranoid
"Searching for Bobby Fischer"-a film of remarkable sensitivity and insight, tells a story based on fact, about a "new" Bobby Fischer - a young boy named Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), who was born with a gift for chess--which he nurtured in the rough-and- tumble world of of chess hustlers in New York's Washington Square Park. His parents acknowledge his gift, but are concerned about how he can develop it without stunting the other areas of his life. After realizing what his son is capable of, Fred seeks out a chess player--a once highly regarded grand master named Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), and hires him to tutor Josh. Bruce tries to teach his pupil a regimented, cerebral approach to the game, while Josh's mentor from the park, Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) favors a fast paced and aggressive style used by hustlers to intimidate their opponents.
Josh proves so adept at the game that Fred enters his son in a tournament. Bruce advises against this, believing that "winning and losing" has nothing to do with chess. Caught up in his son's gift and the thrill of competition, Fred pushes Josh to excel. Josh's weakness as a sportsman is his kindness, which Bonnie fears Fred will beat out of him in his efforts to make his son a winner. When he encounters another prodigy (Michael Nirenberg), who dispatches his opponents with cold-blooded efficiency. Josh has to decide for himself how important winning and losing is.
The movie succeeds with the heart-warming, honest acting of the film's protagonist Max Pomeranc. Steven Zaillian, the director, made a conscious choice when he cast the film to find kids who actually could play chess. He wanted chess players first and foremost- - and who also could handle the demands of the script. His face is expressive, open - and yet strangely inscrutable when he plays chess. The criteria Zaillian demands of his protagonist ultimately defines whether this film works or not- -and Max delivers a truly natural performance. The audiences' enjoyment of this film pivots on his character-- and Pomeranc is wonderful.
Zaillian's superb script attracted a fantasitc cast that includes: Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, and Laurence Fishburne. Supported in minor roes by David Paymer, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, Laura Linney, and Austin Pendleton. Of all those Renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall referred to the film in what he called "magical naturalism" - conveying a child's sense of imagination - while James Horner's music reflects that spirit with equal mastery.
"Searching for Bobby Fischer" is an intensely fascinating movie capable of involving those who are not familiar about chess, as well as those who love it. Steven Zaillian effectively integrates the actual story and footage of Bobby Fischer throughout the film--running parallel to Josh's story, only enhancing the fascinating storyline. The focus of the film is less on the actual game than it is on the people, emotions, and pressures surrounding Josh. It is a tale of the human spirit and triumph.
By the end of "Searching for Bobby Fischer", we have gained insight about the intensity and competitiveness nature of chess tournaments, and a great deal about human nature. The film's implications are many. Think of it as a very smart sports film that substitutes quiet intensity for physical action. There's no denying "Searching For Bobby Fischer" is one film in which every major element - writing, directing, casting, photography, music - is perfectly in tune, exploring the nature of competition with humor, intelligence, and depth.
The film itself is not as great as the story behind it. Frankly, the
plot is the typical American sports movie with the good hearted
champion that has both talent and decency and that works hard for his
art. I guess it would have been worse if it wasn't based on the book
written by Josh Waitzkin's father.
Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story that I recommend you read on. He was the highest rated chess player in the US since he was 8 years old, then his father wrote the book that this movie is based on, then all the sudden celebrity messed with his chess game. Instead of clinging to chess, Josh decides to stop playing, and takes up Ju-Jitsu. He does great at it as well. His book, The Art of Learning, describes the process. Josh Waitzkin is also the guy from the "Waitzkin Academy" tutorial in the ChessMaster XI chess game.
But back to the film. At the time, Josh was the next Bobby Fischer, only nicer. Everybody loved a true American hero, especially in a game that was dominated by Russians. The Art of Learning was not out yet, so the people that made the movie saw no problem in portraying the boy as a chess prodigy that did not lose to anyone unless he chose to. In reality, the wonder of Josh Waitzkin is that he really was brilliant and even as a kid he realised that losing is the true teacher. Losing in a finals of a championship defined his life, as he saw the true value of humility and confidence. Having all that information in the background had me see the movie with completely different eyes and I rather liked it. I wish it was more technical, but then no one would watch it except a few Russians, so...
Funny trivia: three chess players depicted in the movie were the real people: Kamran Shirazi, Joel Benjamin and Roman DzinDziChashvili, while a girl identified as "82nd girl", which means one of Josh's opponents in the game who ranked the 82nd, is Katya Waitzkin, Josh's real life sister.
Bottom line: it has some valuable lessons in there, but hidden in the usual Hollywood bull. It is nice to watch and has a lot more meaning to chess players than people not playing. I liked it.
This is one of the ten best films ever made. It is undoubtedly the best transition from writer to director since Orson Welles mad citizen Kane. Steven Zaillian quietly crafts scripts and is the best kept secret in Hollywood. I can't imagine anyone making a better film than Searching for Bobby Fischer! Joan Allen is fantastic. Conrad Hall shot this one perfectly. James Horner's score is his best. The acting by everyone is superb. Not only is this a great film about chess, but it is truly about humanity at its finest. I highly recommend this film to everyone I've ever met. This is not a remake. It is not based on a comic book or a TV series. This is an original screenplay that makes me cry every time I see it. Thanks Steven for making this movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The number of chess enthusiasts may not be large, at least compared to
that of other sports or games enthusiasts. For many people I suspect
the game conjures up images of older men sitting and thinking for hours
while barely speaking, or older images of Soviet grandmasters playing
each other for some championship or another.
Considering this, I feel the movie does an outstanding job of generating excitement for the game. The capturing scenes in both the park games and the championship games convey real excitement, and action.
In addition, the movie does just a stellar job of replicating the chess atmosphere: the combative and legalistic style of some players, the sheer depth of obsessive knowledge some club players have about the game, and the anger of some parents at tournaments (this last, of course, is also associated with other youth sports). Having played in clubs and tournaments, both as a child and as an adult, I can attest that that is exactly how it is. Grandmaster Pal Benko deserves a lot of credit for his role in advising the production staff, for it would be virtually impossible for someone unfamiliar with the chess club atmosphere to know these details.
The best aspect of the movie is the set of characterizations: Max Pomeranc is simply awesome as the child chess prodigy. The mom (Joan Allen), the dad (Joe Mantegna), the schoolteacher (Laura Linney), the chess teacher (Ben Kingsley), the child opponent and his obsessive teacher (Michael Nirenberg and Robert Stephens) all did an exceptional job portraying highly specialized characters, or at least ordinary characters faced with rather special situations.
As a chess player, I paused this movie several times to try to replicate the final dozen moves or so of the final game. (I think I got pretty close). Even those who are not chess players, however, will find this movie heartwarming and rewarding in my opinion.
I just recently re-watched this movie after not having seen it in about
seven years. I remembered that it used to be my favorite movie as a kid
so I decided to go for it, based only on brief memories of being
fascinated by the story. The movie didn't disappoint, it was brilliant.
I recommend it to everyone, especially those that are sick of loud,
obnoxious, overscored movies like Troy and would like to watch
something that tells the story in a subtle involving way. This is a
The best part of the movie is the way the story is told. It's about a kid with a gift for chess that's comparable to the gift that the great Bobby Fisher had. This structure is very involving. This is coupled with great actors like the main kid as well as Ben Kingsley and Lawrence Fishbourne who all give great performances. I have no complaints.
I would never have gone to a theater to see this. Like a couple of
other great movies ("Hoosiers" for instance), I'd have never had the
experience, except for being trapped at 30,000 feet.
I am glad to have been so trapped. This turned out to be a wonderful "small" film with some great actors. I can understand why they did it--it is the kind of screenplay that is a dream for a good actor, along the lines of "Hoosiers" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." No stunts, no special effects, just the actor and the lines.
It doesn't take any knowledge of chess--the story is just as significant in any venue (say, a tennis or basketball prodigy). Adults attempt to play out their own dreams through a child, but this child resists. Not a big plot, and the outcome is predictable (the tastiness of my wife's pies is also predictable, but enjoyable nevertheless), but it's done well, an interesting one because we become interested in the people.
I rate this film high in "re-watchability." It's one of the very few I've bothered to purchase.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of the finest movie experiences of my life. Every time I watch it I'm reminded of the importance of doing something for the love of the process--for who I am while I'm doing it--and not for the possibility of some nebulous, future reward. Watching the 7 year old main character fall in love with chess and the Washington Square culture that surrounds it took me back to my early days when something within me intuited the artistic depths of a game that is unequaled. The acting in this movie is amazing all around, the story moving and realistic. The father-son dynamic is especially powerful and the bits and pieces of Bobby Fischer's life woven into the film raise the mystique of the man and the game to a very high level. But you don't have to be a chess or Bobby Fischer fan to enjoy this film. If you've ever found significant clues to who you are and what you love through the work you did or the game you played you will be struck on a deep level by the truths and the simple yet elegant beauty of Searching for Bobby Fischer.
An excellent movie. I saw it several years ago and it still has an impression on me. The struggle of the father to do what's best for his son and yet allow him to shape his own destiny is a conflict many fathers have. The main character of Josh gives the performance of a lifetime and it's hard to keep in mind he is not the real Josh. Joe Mantegna is excellent in showing the conflict of wanting something better for his son yet also allowing his son to be a normal little boy. A real tug at my heart movie. I rarely rate movies over a 7 and yet this one has it all. One of my all time favorites. Get the kleenix, you may need it.
Everytime this movie comes on tv, I stop what I'm doing to watch it, even though I own it on tape. It's a beautiful film about love, family and the gifts that make us unique. This movie nails what films about "child prodigies" such as LITTLE MAN TATE just didn't get; how gifted children need to feel ordinary in many ways. The cast is superb and it's great to see Joe Mantegna in a role where he can hold the screen without having to shoot anyone. It really has nothing to do with chess, but it somehow manages to make even this game as exciting as the Superbowl. A haunting experience that just gets better every time.
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