EIFF 2011 Film Review: Bobby Fischer Against the World

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Obsessive compulsion

(Bobby Fischer Against the World, Liz Garbus, USA / UK / Iceland, 2010, 92 mins)

The decline of Bobby Fischer, one time chess world champion, is a sad tale to tell. And so it is to the credit of director Liz Garbus that her biography of the late great delights primarily in his earlier years, without refusing to flinch from the wretchedness to come. We witness the course of his career, from first finding his obsession at age six, through to winning the world title from Soviet Boris Spassky in 1972 (an event of such gravity that it dominated global sports coverage for weeks, before making Fischer the best-selling chess writer of all time), his recession from view and final re-emergence in the grip of madness.

Fischer aficionados will delight at the abundant still and moving images that catalogue his career, and the many contributions from his friends of youth, peers, and the medley of characters who played a role in his extremely isolated later life. These talking heads offer as much insight as could be collected on the interior life of an intensively closeted, alienating man. You needn’t be a chess nut to appreciate the significance of these moments, though: Fischer’s battle for world domination also coincided with America’s. Henry Kissinger (contemporary US Secretary of State) offers his memories of phoning a recalcitrant, evasive Fischer to stop him postponing and make his way to Reykjavik for the final showdown. The youngest grandmaster in history, fighting for his inflated prize-money, now represented capitalism in its war on the communist world.

Bobby’s initial refusal to attend that tournament is the first of a great many puzzles Garbus tries to unravel. Bobby pursued chess with an obsessive compulsion, filling every waking minute for twenty-two years. Once he reached its pinnacle, he found himself desperately unhappy with fame, and his self-imposed pressure to hold the title (which he’d dreamt of keeping for the next twenty years) got the better of him.

An adolescent fascination with Confidential magazine betrayed Bobby’s proclivity for the sensational, which gradually evolved into a preoccupation with conspiracy and religious extremism by his middle-age. Turning first to the Worldwide Church of God, then the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (among other crackpot pamphlets), during his years in obscurity Bobby transformed from an evangelical Christian into a maniacal, anti-semitic enemy of the United States. Garbus and her talking heads draw the obvious inference that Bobby, deprived of a childhood and much authentic human contact (totally consumed by his singular passion), would inevitably succumb to such mental illness. They induce evidence from a long history of troubled chess genii, and the informed opinion of an Icelandic neurologist whom Bobby ‘befriended’ in his ailing years. Such speculation is little antidote to the sting of tragedy.

In youth, there was something enticing about Bobby’s “style” (as one African-American punter lauds it). His smooth arrogance ultimately gave way to a pitiful conceitedness, then pathetic derangement. No one refers directly to that cliché: the self-hating Jew (Bobby predictably had a troubled relationship with his mother, who suppressed their Judaism and hid the identity his real father). Presumably this is because his anti-semitism was so vehement, putrid and absurd, forming one part of a broader complex. His unkempt visage as he arrived in Iceland, to eke out his last days, almost recalls the dishevelled look of the captured Saddam Hussein. Yet Bobby Fischer Against The World allows us to see, through the eye of the camera’s lens, the mystifyingly beautiful, almost charismatic savant he once was. For just that careful rehabilitation alone, the film is a significant event.

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