Summer Doc Series: Bobby Fischer Against The World

By  · Published on June 6th, 2011

All this summer, HBO is featuring documentary films in its line up, so all this summer, we’ll be reviewing them.

On one hand, it makes complete sense to create a documentary about Bobby Fischer; he was a child prodigy, the world chess champion, and an insane person. All of those elements can add up to remarkably compelling storytelling. On the other, Fischer is undoubtedly a relic of another time whose 15 minutes of fame seemed artificially stretched beyond their breaking point by a people as obsessed with him as he was with chess.

In Bobby Fischer Against the World, director Liz Garbus pieces together a monumentally beautiful documentary that’s only slightly uninteresting.

The doc does a fantastic job of telling Fischer’s life story inasmuch as it consists mainly of childhood fame, an iconic match to become world champion, and a pathetic downhill slide into paranoia and death. Yes, he is an incendiary figure that helped launch a giant chess craze in the United States during a time where any fight between the Soviets and the Red, White and Blue would have caused a sensation. It’s also true that he was infuriating (and that’s might make him interesting for some). Unfortunately, Fischer isn’t very compelling past his achievements; he’s a cultural marker that maintained a spotlight because he refused to play by the rules, not because he had anything profound to say.

Garbus seems to anticipate this and loads the film with fascinating figures discussing their rocky friendships with the champ in attempt to give his life true context.

One of the triumphs of the narrative comes in delivering a sports movie where the tension ratchets up almost immediately. Imagine if Miracle placed its mesmerizing final match at the start of the second act instead of minutes before the credits. The effect is a familiar yet jarring one that portends a story beyond what Fischer is most known for.

That story never comes to pass, and even though much of the championship game is described by figures who were there (instead of showing whole segments of the games), it’s a thrilling section that buoys the film and delivers some of its best moments.

After all, the game against chess titan Boris Spassky itself seems so much more important than Fischer. It’s more of a legend than he is because it was a moment where the hard work and natural ability of an American was pitted against the chess machine of the Soviets. It’s Rocky IV except no one got close enough to Fischer to wrap him in a giant flag.

The success of the film comes from leaving Fischer completely open to interpretation. He’s a damaged child throwing tantrums and fearing the possibility of loss. He’s the first child star pushed too hard by an unbalanced mother. He’s a national hero who proved the Ruskies wrong. He’s a sad old man, neglected and discarded by his country. He is all or none of these things, but he is undoubtedly a symbol more than a man. The media that he so feared ended up winning in the end, reducing him to a flattened image and pasting their own story on him regardless of what he truly felt.

The last part of the doc must have been tough to make considering that Fischer fell off the map completely. When he emerged, it was to play an unimportant match that saw him breaking a US sanction. He became a man without a country, and his bitterness fueled the paranoia that had grown inside of him since the 70s. He bought more tinfoil, openly mocked the United States on 9/11, and ended his legacy in a space directly opposite of the nadir he reached as a chess lover.

He’s a bewildering figure, and someone should have gotten him mental aid long before it was too late, but there’s not enough from Fischer here to really make the doc come alive. The result is a story told by the outside, one of speculation and criticism. It’s the filmic version of old men sitting around a campfire trying to remember why they felt so strongly about something that happened four decades ago.

It’s an enjoyable movie featuring some truly creative interstitials and conversations from interesting people, but the central figure is not nearly as interesting as maybe the world once thought. Maybe that’s the ultimate poetry of his life, but it makes for a boring chunk of an otherwise fascinating subject.

Bobby Fischer Against the World premieres on HBO at 9pm EST/6pm PST, and is available On Demand.

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