As a non chess player, the idea of a 93 minute documentary feature on the game and its biggest player was daunting. The result was not a film about chess, but an account of the psyche of a man crippled by his own fame. It’s an in-depth look at the life of a recluse living in the spotlight, hungry for recognition but running away once he found it.
"Bobby saw the world in black and white. There was no neutral, just like the chessboard" director Liz Garbus says of her subject. She proclaims that the film is not about chess, but rather a mirror to society. "Bobby Fischer could not have existed without his social, political and cultural context. He was very much a product of his time."
The feature follows events in his life focusing around his World Championship match against Soviet Champion Boris Strassky in 1972. He became a celebrity with rock star status at the height of his fame during the Cold War. Tabloids and news programmes led with Fischer stories but quickly he became known for his erratic behaviour, diva demands and arrogant attitude.
American Fischer achieved worldwide notoriety and success before retreating from the spotlight. Later he expressed anti-American and anti-Semitic views. The film features interviews and accounts by the people who surrounded him, shedding light on his public persona and their personal relationships with him.
The film is structured and chronological, detailing each career move intricately. A nice touch is that each chapter is signalled with a move on a chessboard, a fitting analogy to Fischer’s life which was calculated and precise, with moves that proved either fruitful or fateful.
The documentary is ultimately tragic and it’s disheartening to watch his fall from grace but the intimate footage and the timid, sensitive picture Garbus paints of the man is compelling. The production is controlled with a focused story, rather than a stream of fact and opinion bound together.
Chess can be a dull sport but Garbus shines a light between the pieces.