Great Movie Scenes was a Needlefish series way back at the beginning, like Songs of the Day, but after a little while I stopped doing them because nobody ever read them. Last night, though, Kathy and I rewatched one of our old favourites, the endlessly beautiful 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, and I felt compelled to share some thoughts about it, figuring as well that hey, if lack of readership puts the kibosh on posting, I should wrap up the whole blog and take up rug-hooking or something instead, right?
Based on the true story of American chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, Searching for Bobby Fischer is the spiritual ancestor (and I’ll wager at least partial inspiration) for 2020’s Netflix sensation The Queen’s Gambit, and remains the superior drama, despite the undoubted excellence of the more recent production. Almost unbelievably, it was writer Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut. The performance of child actor Max Pomeranc never ceases to amaze, capturing, often with just a flicker of his gentle green eyes, the rich inner life and deep fount of empathy that characterizes the little boy’s appreciation of life, and especially of other people and their feelings, as he copes with his initiation into the obsessive, emotionally toxic, and maddeningly competitive world of tournament chess. As we keep seeing throughout, people go nuts trying to master this game and its ruthless logic, and little Josh, despite his preternatural gifts, isn’t necessarily cut out for the sort of blood-sport matches his vast talent allows him to command.
Because, given what he’s up against, little Josh struggles with what’s almost a tragic flaw: he hates inflicting pain. He has no taste for the jugular. He’s kind, sensitive, and sympathetic, and for him winning has an unhappy cost, because you can’t win unless you’re prepared to make others lose. You see it when his team comes out on top in a Little League match, won off of his own bottom-of-the-ninth clutch hit, as he turns his back on his celebrating team mates and looks sadly at the dejected losers leaving the field, crestfallen – you can practically hear him thinking I did that to them, and feel his regret – and you see it most powerfully in the first clip attached above, in which his chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (another real-life character, artfully played by Ben Kingsley), tries to instil the killer instinct. You have to have contempt for your opponents, he tells the boy. You have to hate them. But Josh objects; he doesn’t feel that way. They hate you retorts Bruce, flatly, as if that settles things, but Josh, bless his heart, makes a small, wordless, almost resigned little gesture, raising and lowering his hand in a way that tells us everything we need to know about the child: so be it. If they do, if they really hate him as Bruce claims, it changes nothing. He won’t hate them back. He can’t.
Not gonna lie, that little scene always brings me to tears.
The second attachment is the movie’s climax, in which Josh faces off against his arch-rival, a nasty, arrogant little brat who’s been groomed for competitive chess since before he could walk, and our boy seems up against it. I can’t beat him, Josh admitted to Pandolfini the night before, and Bruce had to tell him he might be right. Now the overconfident bully has him cornered, apparently, but then Josh sees it: twelve moves to checkmate. Out here in the audience our spirits soar, but not so much on screen, because there it is again, that remorseless logic, and it’s going to crush his opponent, who never loses, probably has literally never lost a game in his life. So Josh does what comes naturally. He offers the kid a tie, looks him right in the eyes, extends his hand, and says take the draw and we’ll share the championship. Your heart just bursts, especially when the punk won’t go for it, and Josh cuts him off at the knees, methodically and scientifically, with that typically sad, utterly un-triumphant look in his eyes. Winning, as ever, comes at a price.
Everything about this film is excellent. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Laurence Fishburne, playing the Washington Square speed-chess hustler who becomes Josh’s unlikely mentor and dear friend (a career performance in my book), but all of them, really, it’s one great moment after another from each of them in turn, I mean, tell me you don’t cry just like I do when Joan Allen, playing the world’s greatest Mom, cuts husband Joe Montegna like a knife with her fierce defence of her boy’s emotional well-being, yelling he knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. Well he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you, or Bruce, or anybody else tries to beat that out of him I swear to God I will take him away. Or how about the sheer joy expressed by Fishburne’s character as Josh trounces him in a speed game, each slapping the clock while the boy moves his army relentlessly down field: Yes! Better! You’ve got me on the run now! That’s right! Where can I go? What can I do? Meanwhile, the mise–en–scène is gorgeous throughout – the film was nominated for, and should have won, an Oscar for best cinematography – and composer James Horner contributes what I’ve always thought was his best, most emotionally evocative score, Titanic notwithstanding. You’ll never find a movie that offers greater depth of character, supplies more emotional satisfaction, or breaks and then mends your heart more thoroughly than this warm and infinitely humane portrayal of a beautiful child’s innate and total incapacity for cruelty.