Searching for Bobby Fischer makes it cool to play chess.
The 1993 film begins with young Josh Waitzkin — a character based off of a real boy — randomly exhibiting an aptitude for chess in the park. As far as his mother knows, Josh has never even played chess before, so this comes as a surprise to her.
Long story short (minus spoilers) seven-year-old Josh is a chess prodigy.
Of course, this delights his parents, especially his dad who recognizes his potential. Josh begins training with a chess grandmaster. He’s so talented, in fact, that some say he’s the next Bobby Fischer.
During the film, black-and-white Bobby Fischer anecdotes are sprinkled throughout. During the story’s time period, Fischer had disappeared, hence the title.
A bit of background on Fischer pertaining to the film’s story:
- considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time
- 11th World Chess Champion, beating Russian Boris Spassky
- the youngest grandmaster at age 15
- the youngest candidate for the World Championship
- had a tendency to “disappear” for periods of time
- essentially quit school since chess became “more important”
Fischer was talented but not always likable. Josh provides a direct contrast to Fischer since he shows a lot of heart throughout the film, especially in the final game against his opponent. The opponent seems to symbolically represent a Fischer-like character, directly opposing Josh and focusing on chess as a competition, rather than as an art form, with no choice but to win.
Even though chess is not usually as engaging of a game to watch as a baseball game or a tennis match, per say, Director Steve Zaillian directs the story in an incredibly fascinating way. The final game is not what I would call “nail-biting” in its effort to surprise the viewer, but nonetheless it’s absorbing.
The cinematography is typical for a normal 90s film — nothing memorable (although it did receive an Oscar nomination) — and it’s at times difficult to understand what Josh is saying (although at the same time, it almost makes Josh seem younger and cuter). The story, and the heart, is what helps this film succeed.
The acting is also stellar, boasting Oscar winner Ben Kingsley as Bruce Pandolphini, Josh’s mentor. Max Pomeranc (Josh), Joe Mantegna (Fred Waitzkin) and Joan Allen (Bonnie Waitzkin) also deliver first-rate performances.
The film has two main, apparent messages.
First, it shows that just because one has a natural gift for something, that does not always mean it is a good thing all the time. Sometimes, it can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the intense schedule of honing a natural skill can be too much and wear a child out. It shows that balance is key.
Second, it demonstrates that competition is important, but the player — or team — on the other end is always more important than the game. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try hard to win; what it does mean is that sportsmanship, character and heart take precedent.
Overall, Searching for Bobby Fischer is another inspirational film; just like Queen of Katwe, its utmost goal is to inspire. However, the film doesn’t necessarily inspire one to pick up the game of chess, but rather, Josh’s heart and dedication to doing good is what inspires. Searching for Bobby Fischer pulls on the heartstrings more, and I consider it to prevail over Queen of Katwe in most aspects, minus cinematography.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures