Bobby Fischer Against The World
It might seem unbelievable now but back in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, the world watched, breathless, as the Superpowers slugged it out for supremacy – over a chessboard.
Yup, you read that right, chess. Mixing archive footage and interviews with chess experts, friends, family, acquaintances and enemies, director Liz Garbus attempts to unravel the myth and the madness of the world’s first chess superstar, the mercurial Bobby Fischer.
Tall, good-looking, sensitive and a maddeningly frustrating a**ehole of the highest calibre, Bobby Fischer was an enigmatic genius who, for a time, symbolised the American Dream. Raised in virtual poverty by his activist single mother, a communist agitator with a FBI file as thick as a phone book, as a child, the reclusive Fischer escaped the deprivations of Brooklyn by retreating into world of pure intellect, teaching himself to play chess, becoming totally obsessed and, at just 15, becoming the youngest ever US chess champion.
Estranged from his mother and suddenly finding himself a celebrity, Fischer embarks on a lucrative tour of the States, playing multiple games at once against America’s best and brightest, achieving the status and fame of one of today’s top athletes. As the Cold War got colder it was inevitable that Fischer would be pitted against the best player in the world, Soviet Russia’s Boris Spassky, and, in 1972, the two grandmasters found themselves pawns in a global game.
It’s here that Bobby Fischer Against The World truly grabs the audience as, framed against the backdrop of Vietnam and Watergate, this grudge match between the Superpowers plays out more like a boxing match, a knockdown prizefight reminiscent of the plot of Stallone’s jingoistic Rocky IV, the plucky American individualist taking on the might of the Soviet state, freedom hanging in the balance. Already plagued by the eccentricities that would eventually develop into the all-consuming, full-blown madness that would destroy him in later life, the film charts Fischer’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and the selfish demands that would come to alienate everyone around him but also saw him paid a fortune to travel to Iceland and battle Spassky for the world title in a series of matches, best-of-twenty four games, televised around the world. Garbus thrillingly captures the edge-of-the-seat tension of the contest, juxtaposing interviews with archive footage of the games and footage of the political and cultural impact on society as Americans stayed home to watch the games live, betting on the outcome, on the brash underdog, Fischer.
As the film progresses and Fischer’s increasingly diva-esque antics rattle his opponent and antagonise his friends, it becomes crystal clear that Bobby was a hard man to like with only his Icelandic driver and Scottish celebrity photographer Harry Benson remembering the spoiled, arrogant Fischer with anything approaching affection. In fact, when Spassky resigns in defeat, forfeiting the title, it’s Benson who breaks the news to Fischer that he’s just become the youngest world chess champion at 29. Fischer himself once said “Chess is life,” and the tragedy is, for him, it was. Virtually retiring from competition after the Spassky match, Fischer’s life was effectively over and without the discipline and drive of chess, his obsessions consumed him, his behaviour becoming increasingly erratic, his views increasingly reactionary, bad judgement and bigotry turning him into a fugitive after he unwisely defied a UN embargo against the former Yugoslavia by playing a money-spinning exhibition rematch against Spassky, the US declaring him a traitor, yanking his passport and issuing international arrest warrants.
Garbus unflinchingly documents Fischer’s downfall and, while he may have been more sinned against than sinner, the picture that emerges of the former genius in his final years is pitiable: a pathetic, stateless, paranoid bigot, consumed by hate and madness. But for a few shining moments in the Summer of ’72, as he tilted alone at one of the most powerful nations on Earth, Bobby Fischer was a hero. Compelling and absorbing, Bobby Fischer Against The World is a fascinating, rewarding portrait of a complex cultural icon.