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Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)

May 6th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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Synopsis
Celebrating his 7th birthday in a park near Washington Square, Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) discovers benches full of men playing chess for cash. Though Josh’s father Fred (Joe Mantegna) is a sportswriter, his son loses interest in baseball and fixates on a chess piece he recovered in the park. Josh surprises his mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) by later asking her if they can go back to see “the men in the park.” Then he stuns her by taking a seat at one of the benches and competing with a wizened Russian in a game of chess.

Fred is skeptical that his son knows how to play. He asks for a demonstration, but Josh loses intentionally, not wanting to beat his dad. After realizing what his son is capable of, Fred seeks out a chess player once highly regarded 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.

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Production history
Published in 1989, Searching For Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy was a collection of essays by journalist Fred Waitzkin dealing with the chess world, primarily, Waitzkin’s role as “caddy and coach” to his prodigious son, Josh. Producer Scott Rudin purchased the screen rights, and the book ended up in a stack that the producer sent to screenwriter Steven Zaillian. Rudin felt that Zaillian wrote like a director and had been urging him to get behind the camera for years.

When Zaillian picked up the book for the first time, he recalled, “It was the photograph on the cover that really got my attention, It was of a kid studying a chess position on a board. He was only seven years old, yet he was so adult and intense. This prompted questions in my head. Why was this kid doing an adult job? What kind of pressure does that put on the kid?” Zaillian – who knew little about chess – conducted his own research, hanging out in Washington Square, attending a national scholastic chess championship and meeting characters in both worlds that ended up in his screenplay.

Searching For Bobby Fischer
had very little commercial potential, but Rudin enjoyed a relationship with Paramount Pictures, having produced The Addams Family for the studio to great commercial success. Shooting of Zaillian’s directorial debut commenced in June 1992 under the modest budget – for a studio picture – of $17 million. 8-year-old Max Pomeranc had been discovered several months earlier at a chess tournament in New York. According to Zaillian, “He had no acting experience, but we decided to gamble. It turned out that he was so natural that he’s incapable of a false moment.”

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By the time the film was finished, the regime at Paramount had shifted from the late Brandon Tartikoff to Sherry Lansing, but executives were so moved by the picture, they threw their support behind it. Released in August 1993, the movie drew rave reviews, but failed to connect with audiences, grossing a mere $7 million in the U.S. Some questioned the studio’s release strategy, but Rudin didn’t fault Paramount for the film’s reception, “It’s just what it is. It doesn’t play down to the audience. The real question is, ‘Can you make a movie for families that’s not dumb, that doesn’t necessarily have to aim low and works for adults as well as children?’”

Opinion
The uniqueness of this film lies in its ability to reject the notion that the 1970s was the last golden age of Hollywood, that studios have lost the craftsmanship necessary to make great movies. The 1990s belongs in that equation and here’s one movie that demonstrates why. There’s no mistaking Searching For Bobby Fischer for anything other than a Hollywood product, but it’s one in which every major element – writing, directing, casting, photography, music – is perfectly in tune, exploring the nature of competition with humor, intelligence and depth.

Zaillian’s superb script attracted one of the greater casts in recent memory: Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Fishburne are supported in minor roles by David Paymer, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, Laura Linney and Austin Pendleton. Of all those names, 8-year old non-actor Max Pomeranc gives the most mesmerizing performance. Renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall lit 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.

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Sheila O’Malley at The Sheila Variations says, “All of these characters are beautifully drawn, and perfectly played. And the story itself … I don’t care if it’s a formula. What – you think there are a gazillion different stories to tell? There aren’t. There are maybe 10 stories – told over and over and over – in different ways. Formulas can WORK if they are imbued with life, humanity, surprise. This film is one of my favorite films ever made. It just works.”

“I realize that I’m in the minority of people who don’t think this isn’t really that good of a movie, although I’ll admit, it did hold my interest enough for me to think it still worthwhile, which for a film about chess means it deserves at least some props. Still, Zaillian’s film is like the professional class of chess, rather than the game played out in the park — disciplined, but too rigid to allow for much freedom for expression, with every turn pre-determined well in advance,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Sean McGinnis at DVD Verdict writes, “The film is riddled with small moments, which put a HUGE smile on your face … Suffice it to say that director Zaillian nails a lot of moments. Personally, this film falls right next to The Princess Bride on the McGinnis-Richter Scale. Both succeed for reasons you can’t quite comprehend. Both are terrific family fun with a few life lessons to be learned along the way. Both represent, in my view, the best of what moviemaking is all about.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on book · Bathtub scene · Father/son relationship · Master and pupil · Mother/son relationship · Sports

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // May 8, 2008 at 5:44 am

    I’ve always loved this picture. It’s humane, confident, controlled, and very moving. Nice to see Mantegna play against his Mamet image too and Pomeranc has to be one of the, along with Jesse Bradford in Soderbergh’s woefully underseen King of the Hill(though he’s older) and Lucas Black in Sling Blade, one of the great young performances of the 1990s. Why do only the bad child actors get the attention usually?

  • 2 Piper // May 8, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Interesting,

    Both quotes you picked up seem to almost apologize for liking the movie. Or they want to like the movie but can’t get up the gumption to admit it.

    I have always enjoyed this movie very much. It begins to explore the different levels that a simple game of chess can possess. My 10 year old plays in a chess club and has played in chess tournaments and it’s a testament to what an amazing game chess is that it is studied so much and by such a wide age group. I think people want the movie to be about more or do more and I’m not sure that it’s supposed to.

    I have heard that Josh burned out pretty young and then went on to study Martial Arts. Evidently he has written a book about that.

  • 3 AR // May 9, 2008 at 9:27 am

    I remember seeing this around the time it came out on video or cable. I haven’t seen it since, but at the time I thought it was pretty good, and based on my memory, I would agree w/your assessment. It’s well crafted and not dumb, rare thing in Hollywood films these days.

  • 4 christian // May 9, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    When I interviewed Austin Pendleton for SHOCK CINEMA, he had fond regards for this film, which I still haven’t seen…

  • 5 Joe Valdez // May 9, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Chuck: Thanks for your terrific seven-word summary of this movie. I haven’t seen King of the Hill in years, but would have to move Max Pomeranc’s performance to the top of great child performances in recent memory. What makes it special is that he was a chess player – not a wannabe child star – and I can’t recall seeing him promoted on talk shows or pushed by his stage parents into the media. He just played the lead in this film and like Bobby Fischer, disappeared.

    Pat: This flick came out during the reign of Quentin Tarantino and its sentimentality didn’t rate it very high with the hip crowd, I guess. I would imagine that reviews written in retrospect might appreciate the film a lot more for what it is: intelligent, understated, compassionate. Like you, I’ve always been a fan of it. You must be proud of your son. Thanks for commenting!

    AR: Hmmm. “Well Crafted and Not Dumb” would make a great series to write, particularly if it covered Hollywood films of the last decade or so. Conventional wisdom still dictates that nothing great has come out of Hollywood since the late ’70s.

    Christian: The only movie I can recall of the top of my head that Austin Pendelton has appeared in was 2 Days In The Valley. He’s like M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton though. Once you see his face, you recognize him immediately.

  • 6 christian // May 10, 2008 at 1:42 am

    SKIDOO; CATCH-22; THE MUPPET MOVIE; WHAT’S UP DOC; MY COUSIN VINNY; A BEAUTIFUL MIND..he’s all over the map.

  • 7 Carl Odom // Sep 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Does anybody know if Michael Niernberg died of cancer before age 20?

    No info anywhere.

    carleodo@gmail.com

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