Film review: Bobby Fischer Against the World

Philip Dodd finds darkness and oppression in a film of international chess master Bobby Fischer's life

July 14, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Directed by Liz Garbus

Released in the UK on 15 July

All human life is here: the mantra of the now-defunct News of the World might have been minted to encompass the life of Bobby Fischer, for some the greatest chess mind in history. Here is a New York Jewish man who ended up believing and bellowing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a man who discovered the identity of his biological father only on the day of the man's death; a US sportsman who ended up whooping that the US deserved what happened to it on 9/11, even though his spectacular 1972 chess games with Boris Spassky had been on a Cold War chessboard and he had been a more than willing player; a man whose mother was suspected by the FBI of being a Soviet spy. As journalists used to say, "You couldn't make it up."

Bobby Fischer Against the World, a new documentary by Liz Garbus, joins other recent documentaries such as the one on the cricketer Ian Botham (From the Ashes) and the racing driver Ayrton Senna (Senna) that share an elegiac air as if something has passed from the sporting world that now only art can capture. We may live in a corrosive media culture but there is a new hero-worship abroad in these documentaries, as well as in other documentaries such as Wim Wenders' about the choreographer Pina Bausch.

But formally, there is hardly anything that binds them together. Whereas Senna finds a way to make an ambitious documentary film with the point of view of a subjective fiction, Bobby is more the filmic version of scissors and paste: interviews with those who knew him, some footage and lots of rostrum camera of photographs of Fischer in trademark black tie, white shirt, dark jacket, thin - even gaunt - face, intense eyes and hair parted on the side of his head like some 1950s rock star. Strange for someone who came to fame in the 1960s that its style seemed not to have left any mark on him.

It's a long time since I have seen a film quite as claustrophobic as this one. Shots of Fischer in hotel rooms, playing chess in what look like basements, shots of the Fischer/Spassky games in an Iceland hall - even the interviews are often shot in what look like dungeons. There are some exteriors, but not many. For a long time Fischer became a recluse, even his whereabouts not known. At one stage he put tinfoil on his windows to stop possible radiation contaminating him. It is as if Fischer inhabited a largely sunless world.

What is fascinating about Bobby is to watch the film-maker trying to make sense of Fischer's life. The film starts out as if the Cold War will be its driving force. Henry Kissinger is interviewed, explaining how he rang Fischer to urge him to go to do battle with Spassky in Iceland; and we see the usual shots of a militarised Red Square. Then the Cold War frame is dumped and the ambitious mother/son axis takes over; then, a la Ken Russell's early films, there is the sense that (chess) genius and suffering, even madness, are conjoined. One of the interviewees even retells the old and contested story that the great chess master Wilhelm Steinitz said that he had played God at chess and won.

But there is another, and to me, more moving, story hovering at the edge of this film. From early on, Bobby Fischer is photographed and photographed and photographed. He is a chess prodigy at the age of seven. Later on, during the Spassky shenanigans in Iceland, the film shows Fischer's objections to the cameras whose whirring he claims upset his concentration. He prowls like a caged animal. For some his actions were no more than gamesmanship - but for a man who then went into seclusion for almost 20 years, absenting himself from the world, it seems more profound than that.

Here was a boy and then a man whose life was played out before cameras, still and moving. They made him, and they destroyed him. Oddly enough, it would have taken the cinematic flair of a Scorsese to imagine Fischer fully, as he did another megalomaniac recluse, Howard Hughes in The Aviator; it would taken a Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Hughes) to bring fully to life the agony and the ecstasy of Bobby Fischer.

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